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It's anybody's game: Casino site up for grabs

Union Leader Correspondent

February 23. 2013 10:13PM

A player checks his hand at a Texas hold 'em dealing class at Rockingham Park in Salem in December 2008. (UNION LEADER FILE)

New Hampshire Motor Speedway has just as much chance of hosting the state's first casino as Salem's Rockingham Park, Hudson's Green Meadow Golf Club or any other venue, according to the governor's spokesman.

In fact, said Marc Goldberg, spokesman for Gov. Maggie Hassan, "we're confident there will be numerous bids because of the competitive nature of this market."

Rockingham Park in Salem is considered a serious contender for a casino - if lawmakers end up allowing any at all - but it is not a shoo-in, Goldberg said Saturday.

The governor wants "a competitive process that returns the greatest possible value to the state," he said. And while "something close to the Massachusetts border" is likely to be among the most competitive sites, New Hampshire Motor Speedway "could absolutely bid" for the spot. "It's an open, competitive bidding process," he said.

That's music to Jerry Gappens' ears. The general manager at NHMS in Loudon said the speedway has ramped up its lobbying efforts now that Hassan has included $80 million in revenue from a casino in her state budget proposal.

Gappens himself is lobbying, having met with Hassan a week ago to make the case that the speedway is well-suited and ideally situated to be a site for a state-licensed casino.

"I was very pleased with her proactive stand on expanded gambling; there seems to be some positive momentum going forward," Gappens said from Daytona Beach, Fla., where he traveled for this weekend's Daytona 500.

Many observers believe the best location for New Hampshire's first casino would be Rockingham Park because of its location near the Massachusetts border. Greenmeadow Golf Course in Hudson has also been seen as a possible venue.

Gappens and NHMS lobbyist Ed Dupont of Concord are hoping to get the governor and lawmakers to look beyond Salem.

"We're trying to make sure we're involved in the discussion. We would like a seat at the table," Gappens said.

Hassan, he said, indicated that the state will start with one site and possibly could add more casino sites at a later time. Greenmeadow Golf Course in Hudson has also been seen as a possible venue.

Lawmakers are considering Senate Bill 152, which would authorize one gaming location in the state. It would also establish a gaming study commission to evaluate the operation of the licensed casino and its effects on the community, and to recommend whether to issue additional licenses.

Gappens said that was the formula in Maine, which authorized slot machines at Bangor Raceway in 2004; the state's second casino, in Oxford, was authorized to open until 2012.

"(Hassan) said it would be easier to get one and then go from there," Gappens said.

"I don't argue against a Salem casino, but I just don't want to see a monopoly, a 'one-and-go-from-there,' which would leave many potential sites like ours out of the picture," he said.

Goldberg said Hassan "has been very clear that she supports one high-end, highly regulated casino and that she believes it should be done through a competitive bidding process."

Gappens' pitch for a casino is based on the speedway's success as a public venue, its location in central New Hampshire and the ease with which it could operate a casino. The speedway already has the summer draw of the Lakes Region on one side and all the benefits of a major city, Concord, on the other.

"We have built-in tourist dollars here already in place," Gappens said. "It would fit in very nicely in this region."

Gappens said the governor and lawmakers should consider that one casino may not bring the revenues needed to balance the budget.

"Limiting it to one casino would make it difficult to raise the revenues they're talking about," he said.

"We just want a more fair platform," Gappens said. "I think we should have casinos at a couple of locations; there should be two or three licenses given out."

Dan Seufert can be reached at New Hampshire Sunday News Staff Writer Shawne Wickham contributed to this article.

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