By Doug Ireland
---- — 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.”
The referendum would let legislators know how residents feel about a casino in their community, Callahan said.
While 53 percent of Salem residents voted in favor in 1994, 73 percent expressed their approval nine years ago, he said.
Although Callahan said there is no such thing as a sure bet, he’s optimistic Salem residents will support a casino again.
“I have a hard time handicapping horse races, never mind elections,” he said.
Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas has an option to buy Rockingham Park to establish a $450 million casino.
Millennium spokesman Rich Killion said expanded gambling would generate at least $140 million in annual revenue for the state, creating 2,400 permanent jobs in the area and 2,000 construction jobs. The town would receive 3 percent of the revenue, he said.
“We think it’s a positive development that the people of Salem would have an opportunity to have their voices be heard,” Killion said.
Salem officials, including current selectmen, have long supported casino gambling as a way to boost Rockingham Park and the local economy. The board voted unanimously in June to work with Rockingham Park officials to help bring a casino to the track.
Selectman Stephen Campbell said yesterday residents should be allowed to weigh in on such an important issue for Salem.
“Having a nonbinding referendum on the March ballot would be an important thing to have,” he said.
As long as it’s well regulated, a casino would be an asset to Salem, he said, bringing the town $7 million to $10 million in annual revenue.
“There are a lot of good things you could do with that,” he said.
But Jim Rubens, chairman of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, said allowing casinos in the state would be a big mistake, leading to increased crime and gambling addiction. A casino would also have a negative impact on local businesses, he said.
Rubens said Salem residents have been deceived into thinking a casino at The Rock would be an economic benefit.
“It’s purely PR,” Rubens said. “Who they need to be working on is not the people of Salem — they have already been misled. It’s the House they need to work on.”