By John Toole
---- — SALEM — Milennium Gaming Inc. founder and co-CEO Bill Wortman is betting the state is ready to approve expanded gaming.
Wortman disclosed last night his company has extended its option to purchase Rockingham Park before an audience of more than 200 at the track.
Wortman said he is very optimistic about the prospects of passage for a Senate bill co-sponsored by Sens. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, and Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, that could bring a casino to the track.
“We think there is as good a chance now as there has ever been,” Wortman said.
His company is ready to go with a $450 million redevelopment plan that could create 2,000 construction jobs and 1,300 permanent jobs at the track, should the state award Milennium the right to operate a casino.
Wortman said New Hampshire still has an opportunity to beat Massachusetts to casino development. “I think there’s still time to beat Massachusetts to the marketplace.”
The Rock is the ideal spot, in Wortman’s opinion. “This is the best place in New England to have one,” Wortman said. “I would choose this over Suffolk Downs.”
Responding to questions in a nearly two-hour forum, Wortman said if the state awards Milennium a license early next year the company would absolutely open a redeveloped track complex no later than 2016.
Rockingham Park president Ed Callahan said the track intends to operate charity gaming and simulcast racing throughout redevelopment, though it could be off track elsewhere in the community.
Wortman and Callahan encouraged Salem residents to pass a non-binding referendum supporting expanded gaming at Town Meeting on March 12.
Former New Hampshire Senate President Arthur Klemm of Windham, who attended the forum, said in an interview passage of the referendum is key and will send a message to legislators that the community welcomes a casino.
“The vote on March 12 is a very important vote. We can show representatives from all over the state that this part of the state wants this type of entertainment,” Klemm said.
D’Allesandro, who also attended the forum, confirmed in an interview that the Senate bill provides for a binding vote in any community where the casino might be awarded.
Morse will detail their bill today at a Greater Salem Chamber of Commerce breakfast scheduled at 7:45 a.m. at the Atkinson Resort & Country Club.
D’Allesandro said the bill allows up to 5,000 slot machines and up to 150 table games at the casino.
Morse last week said it provides for a bid process and an $80 million licensing fee for the state. The plan anticipates $100 million in annual revenues once the casino opens.
The revenue would be targeted to highways, colleges and economic development.
There would be regulatory oversight from the Lottery Commission and state police.
“I think it’s the right time,” D’Allesandro said after the forum. “This is an economic recovery, job creation bill.”
Wortman praised the legislation. “I think they’ve crafted a very good bill.”
The Senate Ways & Means Committee holds a hearing Feb. 19.
“We are hopeful that goes well in the Senate,” Callahan said.
Callahan doesn’t anticipate a quick resolution in the Legislature. “This isn’t going to happen overnight, by any means,” he said.
Callahan said it could end up in negotiations among House and Senate conferees in June.
Wortman said the casino would attract as many as 10,000 people a day, more than four million a year.
Responding to concerns about traffic, he stressed people would be passing through the facility throughout the day, so all those people wouldn’t be there at once. He also said Milennium intends to work with the community to alleviate traffic congestion.
The gaming company also would implement a points program to help area businesses that wanted to participate. Gamblers would earn points that could be applied for goods and services at businesses.
The bill also contains protections for charity gaming.