By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — The stakes have been raised, but there are plenty of eager players as Millennium Gaming prepares to unveil its plans tomorrow for a $600 million-plus casino.
News that the Las Vegas-based firm hopes to open a much larger casino complex than planned at Rockingham Park created some excitement in the community yesterday.
Millennium co-CEO Bill Wortman said the proposal will include a 300-room hotel and an entertainment venue that would accommodate up to 1,500 people.
Millennium previously proposed a $450 million complex, projected to create 2,000 construction jobs and 1,300 permanent jobs. The latest plan will be introduced at The Rock at 7 p.m.
State and local officials are excited, saying this latest proposal would be the type of economic boost both the state and Salem needs. Business owners and managers are optimistic as well, hoping the thousands of visitors to the casino each year would benefit them as well.
Salem’s five selectmen and most of its nine state representatives support a casino. Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, is a co-sponsor of legislation that would bring a casino to town.
“Anything that will bring jobs and more revenue, and bring up the tax base is definitely a good thing,” Selectmen’s Chairman Everett McBride Jr. said.
Many Salem residents share that view. Eighty-one percent of voters in the March election supported a nonbinding referendum calling for a casino in town.
But some officials remain staunchly opposed to a casino in Salem, saying it would be harmful to the New Hampshire way of life.
State lawmakers are debating legislation, Senate Bill 2, that would pave the way for a single, highly regulated casino in the state. The Senate has passed the bill and the House is to vote on the bill later this spring.
One strong supporter is Sen. James Rausch, R-Derry. He’s excited about the expanded casino plan, saying it would provide even more jobs and a bigger economic impact.
“I’m glad Millennium is going to up the ante,” he said.
For Tuscan Kitchen restaurant owner Joseph Faro, Millennium’s expanded proposal would be a boon for his Main Street restaurant.
Faro plans to be on hand when Millenniums unveils its proposal. He said he’s not worried about possible competition from other restaurants that would operate at the casino complex.
“What I hear is it’s very exciting,” Faro said. “It’s a win-win for the community.”
At The Common Man restaurant in neighboring Windham, manager John Minasian said a casino would provide a huge economic boost, creating many jobs.
“I think it will help all businesses,” he said. “It will bring more people to the area that ordinarily wouldn’t come to this part of Southern New Hampshire.”
Rockingham Park president and general manager Edward Callahan said he received more than two dozen inquiries about the project yesterday after news broke Sunday about the new plan.
Callahan said most people he speaks to back the project and have asked what they could do to help make it become a reality.
Rockingham Park, which opened in 1906, has seen its share of fiscal troubles in recent years, especially since the end of live horse racing in 2009. Simulcast racing and charitable gaming continue at the park.
“Basically, everyone one I’ve talked to in the past about expanded gaming coming here — except for one business — is they are thrilled the good, old days would be back,” Callahan said.
He said he’s also met with three state representatives from Salem who oppose a casino — Patrick Bick, John Sytek and Marilinda Garcia.
Sytek and Garcia could not be reached yesterday, but Bick said the expanded casino proposal just increases the problems that could result if the complex were built in Salem.
“I don’t support it all,” he said. “I believe government should run effectively without counting on money from a casino.”
Gov. Maggie Hassan has said the $80 million casino licensing fee and estimated $100 million in annual revenue would help New Hampshire resolve some of its financial troubles.
Bick said a casino would destroy the local economy, draining longtime Salem businesses of the skilled employees they need to operate. Restaurants and hotels would see a drop in customers, he said
“How does that not hurt the businesses here in Salem?” he said. “It’s a job loser.”
Calllahan and Millennium spokesman Rich Killion touted a program that would allow customers to redeem points earned at the casino at businesses throughout New Hampshire.
For instance, these points could be used to obtain passes at ski lifts across the state, Callahan said.
“This would not only benefit the region, but the entire state,” he said.
Callahan and Millennium face a vocal opponent in Jim Rubens, spokesman for the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling,
Rubens said Millennium is making promises about increased jobs and revenue that it can’t keep.
He said SB 152 must be reworked to reflect its latest plan, adding that he doesn’t trust Millennium’s proposal.
“Rewrite the bill to show your promises are real,” he said.
Want to learn more? Millennium Gaming's new proposal will be unveiled tomorrow at 7 p.m. at Rockingham Park. The public is welcome.