By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — Bring on the casino.
Residents decided yesterday to up the ante, voting 4,598-1,074 in favor of a nonbinding article to support a casino at Rockingham Park.
For casino advocate across the state, yesterday’s vote was a symbolic show of support for efforts to legalize expanded gambling in New Hampshire.
That includes Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem. He’s the sponsor of a bill that could bring up to 5,000 slot machines and 150 tables games to Rockingham Park.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee recommended passage of Senate Bill 152 in a 4-1 vote last week. The full Senate is to vote on the bill tomorrow.
Although the vote wasn’t binding, Salem residents’ overwhelming backing of plans at the former racetrack will have a significant impact on whether the Legislature approves casino gambling, according to Morse.
“It’s great — I think the citizens sent a pretty clear message,” Morse said. “I think it’s a strong message that we can compete with Massachusetts.”
Rockingham Park president and general manager Edward Callahan was at Town Hall to hear the results.
Polls of Granite State residents show the majority support a casino in the state, he said. This was the third time since 1994 Salem residents have approved nonbinding casino referendums.
Support has increased from 53 percent in 1994 to 81 percent yesterday, he said.
“Every poll indicates that the people in the state want casino gambling, “ Callahan said. “Locally, Salem appears to be very, very interested.”
Gov. Maggie Hassan has said she would support a single casino in the state. Salem’s five selectmen and Town Manager Keith Hickey have said a casino would help revitalize the community and reduce property taxes.
Morse has said Salem would receive about $13.5 million in annual revenue if a casino is allowed at Rockingham Park. A Las Vegas-based company, Millennium Gaming, has an option to establish a casino at the park if a license is granted.
Millennium would invest $425 million in its redevelopment plan, Morse said, generating millions of dollars in revenue for Salem, the state and surrounding communities. That includes $80 million from the licensing fee alone and at least $100,000 in annual revenue, he said.
Millennium spokesman Rich Killion said the vote was a positive show of support for a casino at Rockingham Park.
“Attaining over 80 percent support is a testament to the leadership in this community, across town government and the nonprofit and private sectors,” Killion said in a statement. “That’s because the people of Salem have a century-long relationship with The Rock and they know it can once again be a catalyst for thousands of jobs, economic development and a provider of sustainable revenue for years to come.
More than a dozen residents interviewed at the polls yesterday said they support a casino, saying it would boost the town’s economy and lower their property taxes.
“We need the tax money,” said Amanda Maciariello, 36. “We could use a casino at the track. It looks rundown.”
Lynne Farrington, 55, agreed. She said people who could be gambling in Salem — generating valuable revenue for the community — will just go to the casinos being built in the Bay State.
“It would help out with taxes,” she said. “Salem needs the boost or else they will go to Massachusetts.”
Perhaps the strongest supporter of a casino at the polls yesterday was Selectmen’s Chairman Patrick Hargreaves.
Hargreaves, running for re-election, stood in the pouring rain holding his campaign sign and explaining to voters why he believes Salem needs a casino.
“We’ve been pushing the casino,” Hargreaves said. “I’m looking for 75 percent support. That’s going to send a message to the state reps.”
While Morse’s bill is expected to pass in the Republican-led Senate, it’s future is uncertain in the House.
Support for a casino was evident around town, where there were numerous signs asking voters to back the article. While most were campaign signs, the sign outside the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Salem read: “Support Rockingham Park.”
But not everyone supports casino gambling.
Jim Rubens, chairman of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, said allowing a casino in New Hamsphire would be a costly mistake.
“Because of their large scale and prevailing low-wage jobs, casinos substantially increase costs of schools, roads, public transportation, subsidized housing, water, sewer, police, and fire protection for host community taxpayers,” Rubens said in a statement. “Salem residents should not be naive about Millennium Gaming’s exaggerated promises.”