The Hippo


May 29, 2020








Casino hopes not dead
Rockingham sale seen as drawback, not end to expanded gambling

By Ryan Lessard

 On March 24, two things happened that seemed to hammer the last nails in the coffin of expanded gambling in New Hampshire: Rockingham Park announced its plans to sell the prime property for future development, and the Senate voted to table an expansion bill during its last chance to get passed this session. Many called this the end of any hopes for expanded gambling in New Hampshire, but proponents say they aren’t giving up that easily.

The bad news
Those who wanted to see a major casino built in New Hampshire saw it as an opportunity to bolster state revenues in the absence of major broad-based taxes and give new economic vitality to the community that would host the casino. 
For state Sen. Lou D’Alessandro of Manchester, that community would have been Salem, since it already had a large parcel of land with a long history of gambling eager and ready for development: Rockingham Park.
“The people have held on to the park for a long period of time. They discontinued horseracing. They’re living off simulcasting and charitable gaming now and that just doesn’t pay the freight,” D'Alessandro said.
With a Wynn casino due to open in Everett, Massachusetts, in a few years, Rockingham’s owners knew they wouldn’t be able to compete. Current state restrictions limit wagers for table games to a maximum of $4 and don’t allow slot machines and other forms of gambling.
But Rockingham has potential; it’s on the state border, it has the land, the infrastructure for utilities, majority support among the locals and a storied past.
“If Rockingham Park were the entity that got the license, you have a situation that has been in place for 100 years where this kind of activity has taken place,” D’Alessandro said, referring to gambling on horseracing. 
He also points out that New Hampshire was the first state to reinstate a lottery about 50 years ago. 
“Everybody thought the lottery was going to crumble after six months, the world was going to fall apart … but indeed 35 other states followed suit,” D’Alessandro said.
It took five attempts to create the lottery, but efforts to expand gambling have had more than 20 attempts and failures.
While D’Alessandro and other supporters are disappointed by the latest developments, they weren’t caught entirely off guard.
Early signs that the property was going on the market appeared last year when it sold off 50 acres to Joseph Faro, the owner of Tuscan Kitchen and Tuscan Market. Last month, Faro got approval from the Salem planning board for the first phase of his development plans, which call for creating a mixed use space called Tuscan Village. It will include his relocated market and restaurant, a cinema, car dealership, garden-style apartments and townhouses.
The remaining 120 acres of Rockingham property owned by Rockingham Ventures is expected to be valued at about $50 million, though General Manager Ed Callahan declined to posit a dollar amount.
“Knowing that a major facility is going to go online somewhere two and a half, three years down the road, the owners determined by the end of last year that it’s time to move on,” Callahan said.
The owners could have sold this valuable parcel years ago, but over the generations they held onto the vision that they would restore the track to its former glory.
The good news
Assuming the Rockingham site sells before the Statehouse passes any meaningful expanded gambling legislation in the next couple years, Rockingham is off the table for a casino. There are still other locations and other interested parties, though none as ideal as Salem according to D’Alessandro.
“Finding the correct location will be highly, highly problematic as we move forward. There’s not a lot of New Hampshire left that offers the kinds of amenities that Salem, New Hampshire, offers,” D’Alessandro said.
Problematic, but not impossible. There are other ways to go about expanding gambling.
“We’ve tried redrafting this bill 15 different ways to placate all the different negatives that arise,” D’Alessandro said. “Nothing is cast in concrete as if this is the only way this can be done.”
In fact, Callahan said, one reason some folks have chafed against D’Alessandro’s bills is specifically because they often rely so heavily on Rockingham as either a sole location or a primary location. Callahan says those people were concerned about the state creating a casino monopoly, and he recalls there were some outside of Rockingham who wanted to host a casino.
“There were a number of other interested parties during the time that legislation was being produced,” Callahan said. “You had every major gaming company in Las Vegas interested in New Hampshire.”
Among those were groups in Manchester, Rochester, Nashua and the Green Meadows Golf Club in Hudson. So, if the state were to expand gambling down the road, some of those parties may come back out of the woodwork.
“My assumption would be down the road if the state did something, I’m sure that someone would be interested. I don’t believe that will be able to get a similar proposal to what had been on the table over the last five or 10 years,” Callahan said.
Callahan and D’Alessandro both believe any future casino plans will likely be smaller in scale than what was proposed for Rockingham by casino developer Millennium Gaming. And it may be more expensive to put together a new deal.
“If you pass it and you leave it for open competition, sure there are those who want to do it, but the question is what do you add to the cost of doing business if you have to find the site, acquire the land and do all of those things,” D’Alessandro said.
D’Alessandro says regardless of the likely limits the sale of Rockingham places on any future plans for a casino in New Hampshire, anything is possible — especially, he said, because 70 percent of those polled in the state want a casino.
“We live in hope. It’s never dead. This thing will not die because it’s something that’s alive and well and it’s on people’s minds all the time,” D’Alessandro said.

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