By John Toole
---- — SALEM — Las Vegas-based Millennium Gaming Inc. this week will unveil an expanded Rockingham Park redevelopment plan, including a 300-room hotel and an entertainment venue seating up to 1,500 people.
Millennium co-CEO Bill Wortman, who is traveling to New Hampshire for the presentation, hesitated to put a price tag on the revised plans, but said it would exceed the $450 million the company discussed previously and more closely resemble those estimated for proposed casinos in Massachusetts.
“It will be quite a bit in excess of $600 million,” Wortman said.
He also believes the new plan will mean more jobs, both for construction and operation of the gaming complex, which would include a casino and a return of live horse racing.
Horses first started running at The Rock in 1906. A grandstand fire in 1980 halted racing for four years. Racing stopped in 2009. Simulcast racing continues and would under Millennium’s proposal.
Millennium previously projected 2,000 construction jobs and 1,300 permanent jobs.
“I think the number of employees will go up,” Wortman said.
He is expected to present the plans Wednesday night at Rockingham Park.
The revised plans recognize both the suggestions of New Hampshire residents who want to see The Rock redeveloped as a casino and the changing marketplace, with Massachusetts moving forward with casinos, he said.
“We will release a new look to Rockingham Park, a larger destination resort,” Wortman said.
The old $450 million plan was designed around a slot machine venue — before Massachusetts decided to authorize casinos, he said.
“We needed to develop New Hampshire’s version of a very competitive product,” he said.
Wortman repeatedly stressed the new design would make the casino a regional destination casino.
“We think Rockingham Park and Salem, N.H., is the best gaming location in New England,” he said.
Price tags on the proposed casinos in Massachusetts have ranged from $700 million to $1.2 billion, but Wortman said some of those reflect higher construction costs, infrastructure needs or environmental issues that Rockingham Park won’t face.
Hotel, entertainment would add to experience
The new plans will keep familiar elements.
“We’ll still have the racetrack, still have the clubhouse, the stands and everything,” he said. “That’s part of the uniqueness of Rockingham Park.”
The hotel, which would include a spa, would be six floors and have 600 rooms, but could be expanded. Wortman said the idea behind the hotel is to make the facility more of a destination for the estimated 4 million to 5 million people Millennium expects to attract every year.
A proposed entertainment venue would be limited to between 1,000 and 1,500 seats, he said.
It is a tenth the size of the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester.
“We won’t compete with the Verizon center in Manchester,” he said.
That would put it in the middle of New Hampshire venues, much smaller than the arena, but as much as twice as large as local theaters.
“That’s the kind of thing we’ve done elsewhere,” Wortman said. “We think that works well with what we do.”
Responding to competition concerns raised by some small theaters in the state, Wortman said the venue is intended for the entertainment of people who come to visit the casino.
“Those are the people who are going to want to see our shows,” he said.
The intent of the entertainment venue is to complement the other amenities for casino customers, Millennium spokesman Rich Killion said.
He said the size of the facility means it wouldn’t compete with larger venues like the Verizon Arena or TD Garden, nor would it compete with smaller community venues.
“Basically, it’s to provide amenities to people who come. As they come back over time, entertainment is something people always want,” Killion said. “We also heard about it in February at the Town Hall meeting.”
He said the venue’s small size “shouldn’t be seen as a threat to anyone.”
There also would be restaurants at the complex, Wortman said, but plans aren’t complete and continue to evolve.
Wortman said he is not concerned by the development of casinos in Massachusetts.
“From our perspective, the project we build will be absolutely competitive,” he said.
The revised plans come as the New Hampshire House considers Senate Bill 152, which would allow the state to license a single casino by bid with local community approval.
Local support strong
At a two-hour forum in early February, Wortman heard from local residents and business owners.
Then, Salem residents, by a 4-1 margin, approved a nonbinding referendum supporting a casino at Town Meeting in March.
“Eighty-one percent is a big statement,” Killion said of the vote in March. “The entire town level of executive government is behind it and the chief of police. Factor all those things in, and we think Salem is the best location. We have a community that understands what it takes to have a facility like this.”
The Senate passed the bill, which has Gov. Maggie Hassan’s support, 16-8.
The bill calls for an $80 million licensing fee and would require at least a $425 million investment by the developer.
The casino could have up to 150 table games and 5,000 slot machines.
Proponents have said a New Hampshire casino could bring in $100 million in revenue each year for the state to pay for highways, colleges and economic development.
Wortman said when the casino opens would depend on actions of the Legislature. But, he said, under the parameters of the Senate-passed bill, Millennium could have it up and operating by 2015.
The company is ready to pursue licensing if the state authorizes the casino, he said.
“We’re going to be ready,” he said.
A license could be issued as early as late summer of 2014. Local approval would still be required, but that would not appear to be an obstacle in Salem.
Many Bay State customers anticipated
Wortman said he’s heard nothing in the discussion at the Statehouse that concerns him at this point.
“I think what’s going on now is the House is vetting this particular issue,” he said. “They are asking the questions that need to be asked.”
Wortman’s position is the state should be comfortable about looking to a casino as a source for revenue because The Rock is ready for it and future competition will be limited in neighboring states.
Millennium has an option to purchase Rockingham Park, an option the company extended this winter. Wortman said he personally has a 20 percent ownership stake in the racetrack. The site includes 170 acres, presumably enough for future expansion.
Despite the approval of three casinos and one slots parlor in Massachusetts, Millennium officials still anticipate some two-thirds of its customers in Salem would come from the Bay State, Killion said.
“You have so many people living within a concentric circle of one to two hours from Salem, N.H.,” Killion said. “It happens to be the front door for New Hampshire is Exit 1 off Interstate 93.”
He also said potential casino sites in Everett, Mass., and at Suffolk Downs would require significant infrastructure improvements and traffic mitigation. That’s not the case in Salem, he said.
“It sits at the doorstep of Massachusetts,” Killion said, “and the infrastructure is in place.”
When Wortman talked about a proposed casino in 2007, he said Millennium could have a temporary gaming facility up and operating within six months. That’s no longer part of the plan.
“A temporary facility is not part of the plan essentially because the competitive environment has changed,” Killion said. “In competing with Massachusetts, our assessment is, getting a permanent facility up and going is in the best interest of the state and community, in getting the revenue it is anticipating and in competing with Massachusetts head on.”
If SB 152 passes, Millennium would be in competition with other casino developers for the state’s sole license. Killion said he doesn’t know how many potential bidders there would be, but has heard as many as five, perhaps more.
“We will compete and compete hard,” he said. “We’re very optimisitic this is the right community and that Rockingham Park’s the right facility.”
Staff writer Jo-Anne MacKenzie contributed to this report.