SALEM, N.H. — Planning Board members say they are skeptical about a charitable casino project proposed for the Depot intersection.

Traffic is often heavy and slow moving at the intersection, which is being reconfigured in a $24 million project. Board members said they are concerned that the proposed two-story casino building with nearly 14,000 square-feet for gaming and a restaurant would add to those traffic problems.

The developer, the Lupoli Companies owned by well-known local businessman Sal Lupoli, previously had an approved plan for a multi-use restaurant, retail, office and residential space at the 1.3-acre site. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact the economy, however, Lupoli Companies said it no longer sees that plan as feasible and is instead proposing the restaurant and casino.

“When we look at what life is going to be like for the foreseeable future, we think we are going to struggle to find a niche for the small retailers and the small restaurants and the small office space broken up the way that it was in the three buildings (in Lupoli's earlier proposal), particularly when you look at everything that’s happening at the Tuscan Village (a nearby mixed-use project),” said Rick Fryberger, an engineer for the TEC firm that represents Lupoli Companies.

Fryberger's comments came at an Aug. 25 Planning Board meeting — the first time board members were able to talk with the engineer about the casino project. The developers have received feedback from the board and, based on that information, are reworking the plan in hopes it will eventually gain the board's approval.

The project proposes a traffic pattern requiring drivers to take a right turn only into the property and also a right turn only to exit. Board members said such a traffic pattern has not worked in other locations in town.

“Trying to do a right-in, right-out sounds good on paper, but I can tell you right now it does not work," said Linda Harvey, an alternate member of the board. "There are going to be people stopping on Route 28 and other cars backed up behind them are going to be backed into the intersection and things are just going to turn into a gridlock situation.”

Mike Lyons, a selectman and Planning Board member, agreed.

“Chasers (the other charitable gaming casino in Salem) is over by our best intersection, and this place is going to be over by our worst intersection. Despite the fact that we and the state are putting $24 million into it, it’s still going to be an ‘F,’'' Lyons said of the Depot, which state transportation officials have given a poor "F'' rating because of its problems. "So I think this is a tough one.”

As part of the Planning Board review, the developers must do a traffic study showing how the project will affect the intersection. State officials will also likely comment on the study because reconstruction of the Depot intersection  is being paid for by the state.

Other Planning Board members, including Jeff Hatch and Chairman Keith Belair, said the proposed restaurant and casino go against the area's existing zoning. Zoning in the Depot area is designed for mix-use projects, like the previous plan submitted by Lupoli Companies. The idea of the zoning, according to board members, is to increase foot traffic and decrease car traffic in the area, which has long been known for backups of vehicles. 

“This project (the casino) is going to bring in more car traffic and less foot traffic,” Hatch said.

The developers also face a parking issue. The project has 79 parking spaces, leaving the developers to look for ways to create more spaces, Fryberger said.

“We expect there is going to be some discussion around parking and traffic especially," he said to the board. "We know that’s a heavily traveled roadway. The intersection specifically is a challenging intersection, which is why it’s being repaired. So we look forward to discussing those issues with you.”

The project might also have to go before the town's Zoning Board of Adjustment because the proposal involves three parcels of land, one of which is not zoned for charitable gambling, town officials said.

During the planning process, the developers would also need state approval for a charitable casino. The state has not received an application or any information about the project, said Maura McCann, a spokesperson for the New Hampshire Lottery Commission.

Charitable poker rooms and casinos in New Hampshire must give 35% of their gross revenue to local charities and 10% to the state lottery, according to state rules. Chasers gave about $3 million to local charities last year, according to owner Lisa Withrow.

New Hampshire has 55 charitable gaming facilities. There are no limits on how many such facilities can be put in a community, McCann said.

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