By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — Selectmen are rolling the dice on a plan to establish a multimillion-dollar casino at Rockingham Park.
The board voted unanimously last night to back a proposal by Rockingham Park president and general manager Edward Callahan to hold a nonbinding referendum on whether residents support a casino at the former horse track.
The request comes as a new Legislature is expected consider bills this winter to legalize casino gambling in New Hampshire. Past proposals have failed to receive support from state lawmakers and Gov. John Lynch, who is leaving office Jan. 3.
But selectmen and many residents have voiced approval for a casino, hoping the millions of dollars in annual revenue it is expected to generate would boost the state and local economies. Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan has said she would support a single, well-regulated casino in the state.
“I’m totally, 100-percent in favor of this,” said board Chairman Patrick Hargreaves, who also announced last night he would be seek re-election in March.
Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas has an option to buy Rockingham Park to establish a $450 million casino. Millennium spokesman Rich Killion has said expanded gambling would generate at least $140 million in annual revenue for the state. The town would receive 3 percent of the revenue, he said.
Hargreaves proposed the board lead the effort so it would not be touted as a plan by a business interested in making money.
Callahan has said a nonbinding referendum would let legislators know how residents feel about a casino in their community. Similar votes in 1994 and 2003 showed residents backed casino gambling, he said.
Rockingham Park was forced to discontinue horse racing two years ago after more than a century. It still offers simulcast racing and charity poker games, but they are not enough to support the 170-acre facility especially with the approval of casinos in Massachusetts, according to Callahan.
“I have no problem with it if the people of Salem want it at Rockingham Park,” Selectman Stephen Campbell said.
The proposal also received support last night from NH Casino Now representative and Salem businessman Larry Belair. His group sponsored a public forum on casino gambling in October.
“We’re here to make sure the community support is here to get it done,” Belair said. None of the approximately 15 people in the audience opposed the plan.
Callahan has said Rockingham Park would pay the several thousand dollars needed to hold the referendum.
“The town’s residents should not have to bear the cost of that,” he said.
Selectmen opened the meeting with a moment of silence in memory of the 26 people, including 20 children, slain Friday at a Connecticut school. Also, the board honored Chief Building Official Sam Zannini, who is retiring Dec. 31 after working for the town for 35 years.