A New Hampshire House subcommittee charged with examining potential community impacts from casino development has yet to talk to Salem officials or those from neighboring communities.
The Community Impact Subcommittee is scheduled to issue a report next week. But community leaders in Southern New Hampshire said they had not heard from the panel, which is meeting three days this week and at least once next week.
“Maybe they feel they already know Salem’s feeling,” Salem Selectman Stephen Campbell said. “It does seem a little bit odd.”
Salem is the early favorite to get a casino, should the Legislature agree to license one.
Las Vegas-based Millennium Gaming Inc. has an option to buy Rockingham Park, and track representatives have told lawmakers they will bid for an $80 million casino license. The company has plans for a $425 million track redevelopment.
The House is reviewing Senate Bill 152, which would let the state license one casino by bid with local community approval.
Salem voters, by a 4-1 margin, passed a non-binding referendum at Town Meeting supporting a casino.
The bill would provide aid to abutting communities that could be affected by a casino. In Salem’s case, those would include Atkinson, Derry, Pelham and Windham.
Officials in those communities said yesterday they had not been invited to committee work sessions.
The list of speakers who have appeared before the subcommittee or who are scheduled to appear did not include any local officials or business owners, though Millennium lobbyist Jim Demers met with the panel yesterday.
Rep. Mary Griffin, R-Windham, a subcommittee member who supports a casino, said she expected Salem selectmen will be invited to speak next week. Griffin does not think the subcommittee will meet its deadline. “I think we’re going to have to push that out,” she said.
Griffin said the subcommittee is trying to be thorough. “We’ve been meeting every day with experts in the field,” she said. “You want to do it right.”
Town Manager Keith Hickey said Salem officials hadn’t heard from the subcommittee but have studied potential impacts and visited a Pennsylvania town that has a Millennium casino. “We’d be happy to appear, if asked,” Hickey said.
The House speaker’s office, in announcing the subcommittee’s formation last month, said it would “explore impacts on municipalities, counties and the state including job creation, impact on existing businesses, traffic and highway maintenance, public safety and other social costs.”
Salem officials did speak in favor of a casino at a hearing before the joint Finance and Ways & Means Committee that will recommend whether the full House approve the bill. The community subpanel members all serve on that joint committee.
“We gave our overview,” Selectmen’s Chairman Everett McBride said. “We don’t believe there is going to be a negative impact at all. The way we’re going about it is we think we can handle it.”
McBride said he thought the legislative subcommittee would speak with local officials. “Usually that’s what you do,” he said.
But he refrained from criticizing the subcommittee. “I believe the committee will do their due diligence and look at it with open minds,” McBride said.
“If they truly wanted to know what kind of impact gambling would have, Salem has the biggest going concern now and we’ve had it a long time,” Campbell said.
Larry Belair of NH Casino Now, a group advocating for a casino at Rockingham Park, said he thought the subcommittee should be talking to local officials.
“There’s more than a reasonable chance Salem will end up being the host community,” Belair said.
Plus there’s the town’s history with gaming, he said.
“Information garnered from Salem folk would be a help no matter where a casino ultimately winds up,” Belair said. “We already have a track record, with a considerable amount of gaming since 1933.”
Belair said it would be good for the subcommittee to speak with the town’s police chief, Paul Donovan, because Salem hasn’t experienced the crime troubles casino opponents have warned against.
While the subcommittee’s charge includes looking at the impact on existing businesses, Greater Salem Chamber of Commerce executive director Donna Morris said lawmakers have not approached her to appear before them.
She said she would ask lawmakers if they want to hear from Salem businesses. “I think feedback is always great,” Morris said.
Rockingham Planning Commission Chairman Tim Moore, a member of the Plaistow Planning Board, said lawmakers had not asked the commission for input.
He said lawmakers should want to hear from officials.
“Salem would be the most impacted,” Moore said. “But if they were really interested in getting the community’s opinion, they should be talking to all the surrounding communities.”
Plaistow’s own Planning Board, faced with a project such as a casino, would want to know the impact in terms of traffic, the economy and extra public safety costs, he said.
While he would absolutely speak with Salem because of its experience with gaming, Moore said he would also want to hear from towns in other states that have casinos. “I’d make contact with those communities,” he said.
Other subcommittees are at work reviewing revenue and regulation issues.