By John Toole
---- — SALEM — The Greater Salem Chamber of Commerce, in a letter to every member of the New Hampshire House, is asking lawmakers to approve a Senate passed casino bill.
“Now is the time to act in favor of expanded gaming for our state,” president Donna Morris said in a letter sent on behalf of the Chamber.
The House Ways and Means Committee holds a hearing on Senate Bill 366 tomorrow.
The hearing is scheduled at 9 a.m. in Rooms 202-204 of the Legislative Office Building, across from the Statehouse.
“The Greater Salem Chamber of Commerce views the potential increase in economic development, the creation of permanent and contract jobs, and the definitive increase in revenue stream to our state as a result of expanded gaming highly beneficial,” Morris wrote.
The Chamber, which has more than 450 member businesses, also pointed to the results of last year’s non-binding referendum that showed 81 percent of Salem voters supporting a casino.
The business group also said a casino license would help Rockingham Park.
“We believe that Rockingham Park, as a business, should have the opportunity to be competitive in its own industry,” Morris wrote.
Las Vegas-based Millennium Gaming Inc. has an option to buy Rockingham Park and its co-CEO, Bill Wortman, personally has a 20 percent ownership stake in The Rock.
The company intends to bid on a casino license if New Hampshire establishes one and has plans for a $600-million-plus casino development with a hotel and entertainment venue.
Millennium has estimated the project could create 3,000 construction and gaming jobs.
Lawmakers have said a casino could bring the state $100 million in revenue annually.
The House rejected a House casino bill on a 173-144 vote last month. But the Senate approved SB 366, which would allow licensing of up to two casinos, 15-9.
Though Gov. Maggie Hassan favors licensing only one casino, she has encouraged House lawmakers to consider the Senate proposal.
Proponents and critics have agreed the Senate proposal has the best chance yet of becoming law.
That is encouraging some casino supporters in Salem, who have watched votes in the House get closer in recent years.
“We’re as optimistic as we can be,” Morris said.
In her view, the Senate bill has responded to concerns of those in the House who have demanded strict regulation for a casino.
“The time is right,” said Ron Oldeman, who has participated in the Salem-based NH Casino Now campaign.
Oldeman said his message to lawmakers is they are losing out on a great opportunity for revenue for the state, if they fail to approve a casino.
“We’re going to lose money to Massachusetts if we don’t,” Oldeman said.
A casino would be good for the state’s economy and create jobs, he said.
He said it’s personally hard for him to be optimistic about the bill because he has been disappointed so many times and there are so many factions in the House.
He pointed to Democrats who oppose a casino because they want an income tax instead, something Oldeman said would be harmful to the state.
“I don’t know what the outcome will be,” Oldeman said. “But every time it seems to get closer.”
Salem Selectman Stephen Campbell said casino supporters in town have lobbied lawmakers, including those in Salem, to gain passage.
“We’ve done everything we can,” Campbell said. “I don’t know if Salem can do any more.”
He pointed to the town’s referendum result from last year.
“That’s a pretty significant number of people,” he said. “The percentage was out of this world.”
Campbell said the opposition of some in the Legislature to casino gaming has struck him as odd, since there is already gambling in New Hampshire through the state lottery.
“There’s a lot of hypocrisy going on,” he said.
Campbell maintains a casino will help, not hurt, the state’s image.
“We’re supposed to be the ‘Live Free or Die,’ state, that’s how I feel,” he said.
The closing gap on House votes makes one thing clear in Campbell’s mind.
“It obviously has a chance,” he said.
He compared the casino issue to a balloon, where someone pushes one side and it affects the other.
“If you fix one thing, they will find another,” Campbell said.
He’s hoping the House will approve a casino.
“We could do a lot of good things if it does,” he said. “It should just be passed.”