By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — It doesn’t matter if you are running for selectman, the School Board or the Budget Committee — people in town want to know if you support casino gambling.
They also want to know if you support a proposal to establish a multimillion-dollar casino at Rockingham Park.
Candidates for elected office were peppered with questions about casino gambling during a 90-minute public forum last night at Salem High School.
The candidates forum, organized by the Greater Salem Chamber of Commerce, featured 12 candidates running in six races for selectman, School Board, Budget Committee, Planning Board and trustee of trust funds. Two seats are open on the Budget Committee.
While none of the candidates were asked the same question, many of the questions focused on whether candidates’ supported casino gambling in town or proposals to spend up to $17 million to renovate three elementary schools.
Many of the candidates said — whether they were asked or not — that they backed expanded gambling and a proposal by Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas to establish a casino at the former racetrack.
If the Legislature votes to approve expanded gambling in New Hampshire as recommended by Gov. Maggie Hassan in her budget address last week, the revenues are expected to help revitalize the state’s economy.
Hassan’s proposed budget relies on $80 million the state would receive through the licensing fee. Senate Bill 152, co-sponsored by state Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, would allow for a single casino in New Hampshire, with up to 150 table games and 5,000 slot machines.
If Rockingham Park were chosen as the site for a casino, Salem would receive a chunk of the annual revenues, according to Patrick Hargreaves, an incumbent selectman who is seeking reelection.
“A casino will give us $4 million to $5 million a year,” Hargreaves said last night.
Hargreaves said he supports a casino and that the town has two dozen applicants for six seats on Salem’s newly formed Casino Advisory Committee.
Hargreaves, the board’s chairman, seeks re-election to his three-year seat and is running against Stephen Kelly, whose name will be on the ballot even though he has asked to withdraw from the race.
Other candidates who said they support a casino include Stephan Coufos, who is running for one of two three-year terms on the Budget Committee.
“The money coming in definitely would be great,” Coufos said. “I think it would be something positive, something different.”
One of his opponents, Martha Spalding, said she’s indifferent to whether a casino should be established in Salem, saying she would support whatever voters decide.
“I hope if they do choose one, it is Rockingham Park,” she said.
A nonbinding question will go before voters March 12 to measure their support for a casino.
Last night, Planning Board candidate Linda Harvey was also vocal in her backing of a casino.
“I’m really hoping the voters out there support the casino,” she said.
Harvey also said a casino would not create as much traffic congestion as people think, since there was not a lot of traffic when The Rock operated as a racetrack.
“That’s one of the things people are worried about,” Harvey said. “I don’t think it’s (a traffic problem) going to happen.”
School Board incumbent Peter Morgan refused to answer whether he supports casino gambling.
“I don’t think that is a question that is very germane to my responsibilities on the School Board,” Morgan said.
Morgan was one of the candidates who said he supported the plan to renovate the Haigh, Fisk and Soule elementary schools.
“It will make the students safer and make the buildings more safe and secure,” he said.
“It is a situation that is affecting the health and safety of the children,’’ she said, “and we have no choice.”