By John Toole
---- — SALEM — A track announcer might say Rockingham Park’s future is at the top of the stretch.
The New Hampshire House rejected casino gaming on Thursday, 173-144. But flip just 15 votes and the celebration is still going on today in Salem.
The casino race is nearing the finish line, yet there remains hope in the saddle.
Another bill in the Senate gives casino backers reason to keep fighting this year. House lawmakers, meanwhile, signaled they could change their minds, defeating a move by a gaming expansion opponent to dismiss further consideration this year.
But there is little ground left to cross in this race.
Should the Legislature reject casino gaming this year, proponents say there might be one more shot next year. But, they concede, The Rock’s time is winding down.
“We know we have until 2015 to solve the problem,” Rep. Robert Elliott, R-Salem, said.
And, if the problem isn’t solved, The Rock’s days could be numbered.
“The future for Rockingham Park is not a bright future without casino gaming,” said Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, sponsor of the Senate bill. “I see the end of Rockingham Park. I see them carving the land up and selling it off.”
There would be developer interest.
“I think the racetrack is one of the most valuable pieces of property in New England,” Salem planning director Ross Moldoff said.
Casino or not, the 170-acre site has a lot of appeal to many.
“That’s a huge parcel of land that has to be developed one way or another,” said Phil Cammarata, a member of Salem-based New Hampshire Casino Now’s executive committee.
That could mean apartments, or commercial or industrial uses, he said.
“It’s zoned for everything,” Cammarata said.
What it could be instead is a massive casino complex with intimate concerts, shows, live horse racing and thousands of jobs. Legislative estimates have projected potential annual state revenues at more than $100 million.
Selectmen have formally supported having a casino at the park. So have more than 80 percent of Salem voters through a nonbinding referendum.
Las Vegas-based Millennium Gaming Inc. has a plan for a $600-million-plus casino development that would include a hotel and entertainment venue.
The company has estimated it could create a combined 3,000 construction and gaming jobs.
Millennium has an option to buy the track and co-CEO Bill Wortman personally has a 20 percent ownership stake in The Rock.
The company has said it will bid for a casino license if the Legislature authorizes one.
“They’ve invested a lot of money. Right now, nothing’s happening. They’ve got to satisfy stock holders,” D’Allesandro said. “You’ve got to make good business decisions.”
Millennium’s man in New Hampshire, Rich Killion, said the company remains committed to the opportunity.
“We’re focused on now,” Killion said.
Competition from Massachusetts, which could bring casinos on line by 2016, is a looming concern.
Rockingham Park hosts charity gaming, 37 groups that bring in $2 million a year.
That is imperiled by those casinos in Massachusetts, officials agree.
“Charity gaming will disappear,” said Cammarata, who is actively involved with two of the charities, Salem Historic Society and Arlington Pond Protective Association.
“Without a doubt, charity gaming will be all done,” Rockingham Park president Ed Callahan said.
Gamblers will have a Massachusetts casino in the region as an alternative to The Rock.
“New Hampshire doing nothing is a death sentence for charity gaming,” Killion said.
Callahan envisions the competition will have a nicer facility than today’s Rock, with higher table stakes and free, complimentary drinks for gamblers.
He prefers not to dwell on having to compete in that environment and said Rockingham Park is still working with Millennium.
“We still hope gaming will have a chance to pass in New Hampshire,” Callahan said.
Massachusetts is moving closer to casino gambling day by day, Killion said.
“That shines a bright light on the impact to New Hampshire from standing pat and doing nothing,” he said.
The House vote Thursday would be welcomed in Massachusetts, Killion said.
“Massachusetts won (Thursday),” he said.
D’Allesandro admits the House vote came as a disappointment.
“Almost is not good enough,” he said.
The senator said he doesn’t understand how the same House can cast votes supporting charity gaming and keno, then turn around and say no to a casino.
“When you need jobs, when you need significant investment, it doesn’t happen,” D’Allesandro said.
He is not optimistic at this point, but says everyone will see what happens. The Senate path is through a Finance Committee with some opposition, but the president of the Senate is Chuck Morse, a casino backer from Salem.
“To be realistic, given the disposition of the House, where about 80 people are not showing up on a session-to-session basis, this thing doesn’t have much of a shot,” D’Allesandro said.
Killion attributes a lot of absences this week to the weather and said no one knows how those votes would play out if the House gets another chance.
Elliott liked some of what he saw Thursday.
Casino advocates picked up the vote of Rep. John Sytek, R-Salem, who last year opposed casino gaming because of concerns about insufficient regulation.
This House bill included more and tighter oversight, something Elliott said helped bring Sytek aboard.
“That is a huge swing vote,” Elliott said. “I went over and shook his hand.”
Rep. Marilinda Garcia, who last year opposed casino gambling, didn’t vote Thursday. She did, however, vote on three other bills Thursday, including one supporting the District of Columbia to be fully represented in Congress. She voted against that measure.
But something else happened that gave Elliott hope.
Despite rejecting the casino bill, the House rebuffed Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, a decades long casino gaming foe, turning down his procedural motion when he tried to put the issue to rest for the session.
“Neal Kurk got a slap in the face,” Elliott said.
He said he also is encouraged by the continued support of Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, who he said personally came to the Republican caucus to thank casino supporters.
“That definitely helped,” Elliott said.
He wants the Senate to give the House one more chance this year on casino gambling by sending over D’Allesandro’s bill, which allows licensing of two casinos.
The House bill would have licensed one casino.
Elliott said if the Senate bill is more attractive to House members, that could be a difference maker.
“That bill is not dead by a long shot,” Elliott said.
Add up all those factors — the absences, Hassan’s support, the possibility of more votes due to multiple venues in the Senate version, the House refusal to stop the discussion, the economics of it all and the threat from Massachusetts — and Elliott sees a chance.
“That’s why I’m so optimistic,” he said.
Cammarata hopes Elliott’s optimism is founded.
“The state needs this,” he said.
Voters still can make a difference in the issue, he said.
“People need to call, get hold of their reps and tell them to vote in favor of it,” Cammarata said.
What happens to The Rock if the Legislature doesn’t give casino gaming a chance, this year or next, isn’t promising.
“My candid answer is nobody knows what will happen except God and he hasn’t told me,” Elliott said.
Salem Delegation roll call
House lawmakers voted Thursday on whether to kill H.B. 1633, providing for a single casino in New Hampshire. A no vote would have kept the bill alive. A yes vote was to kill it.
Here’s the Salem delegation roll call:
Rep. Ronald Belanger, No
Rep. Patrick Bick, Yes
Rep. Robert Elliott, No
Rep. Marilinda Garcia, Not voting, not excused
Rep. Bianca Garcia, Not voting, excused for absence.
Rep. Anne Priestley, No
Rep. Joe Sweeney, No
Rep. John Sytek, No