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December 4, 2012

Casino referendum sought in Salem

Rockingham Park president seeks gambling referendum

SALEM — Rockingham Park president and general manager Edward Callahan doesn’t like to gamble on elections, but he’s willing to bet Salem residents will support a casino at the former horse track.

Callahan has asked town officials to schedule a nonbinding referendum vote in March, when residents will head to the polls to decide various local issues.

He will approach selectmen at their meeting Dec. 17 to seek their support.

The request comes as a new Legislature is expected consider bills to legalize casino gambling in New Hampshire. Past proposals have failed to receive support from lawmakers and Gov. John Lynch, who is leaving office Jan. 3.

Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan has said she would support the establishment of a single, well-regulated casino in the state.

“Hopefully, our Legislature will move forward in the next year,” Callahan said yesterday. “In the 106 years that Rockingham has been here, racing and gaming have been on the menu and we hope to continue that.’’

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 sustain the 170-acre facility, Callahan said.

Approval of casinos in neighboring Massachusetts last year means New Hampshire needs to act quickly to remain competitive, he said.

Callahan has told town officials The Rock lost half of its business when Foxwoods Resort Casino opened in Connecticut 20 years ago.

“Now, we are looking at competition a little closer than Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun,” he said. “The immediacy has grown.”

Rockingham Park has pushed for expanded gambling for at least two decades, Callahan said.

And Salem residents have supported it.

Nonbinding referendum votes in 1994 and 2003 showed residents backed casino gambling, Callahan said.

“At that time, we thought it would be a good idea,” he said. “I thought it would be a good idea to have another one.”

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