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Casino in Loudon promoted

Union Leader Correspondent

February 16. 2012 11:47PM

LOUDON - Picture an entertainment venue with the appeal of huge resorts like Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, with a luxurious hotel and gaming rooms, near the center of New Hampshire, with the summer draw of the Lakes Region on one side and all the benefits of a city like Concord on the other.

There is such a place - minus the hotel and gambling - already.

The New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Route 106 in Loudon is among the largest sports and entertainment venues in New England, drawing 600,000 patrons a year, hosting the only NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series events held in the region, as well as numerous other events.

'This would seem to be the natural place for New Hampshire to put a casino,' said the speedway's general manager, Jerry Gappens. 'We're already bringing thousands of people in here regularly, and over the years, I think we've proven we can handle it.'

State lawmakers, in part responding to the advent of casino gambling in Maine and Massachusetts, held a hearing this week to consider amending the already controversial legislation, House Bill 593, that would allow casino gambling in the state. The amendment could double the originally proposed two casinos to four, allowing for one large casino with up to 150 table games and 5,000 slot machines, while the others could have up to 60 table games and 2,000 slots.

The bill goes before a committee next week. It won't come before the full House for a vote until March, after the Legislature's winter break.

In a letter to lawmakers, Gappens expressed a 'strong and sincere interest' in expanding the speedway into a gambling facility on the speedway's 11,000 acres.

Gappens, speaking from his speedway office Thursday, said the positive gains for the town, the region and the state make it the ideal site for a casino. 'The opportunities and vision for this are limitless,' he said.

The speedway hasn't come up with plans or a dollar figure to attach to a casino project, nor would Gappens say whether the track hopes to be granted a license for a larger casino or one of the smaller places detailed in the legislation.

But if chosen by the state, the speedway would likely build a facility for gaming rooms, build a large hotel onsite, and add parking spaces. Gappens said the raceway would work closely with town and state planners to assure that the additions would 'fit the dcor' of the town and its surroundings.

During its racing schedule from April to November each year, the 21-year-old speedway already brings economic benefits to the town's tax base, and benefits business in the region by bringing crowds to area stores, he said.

'We already make an important connection between the summer tourists in the Lakes Region and the businesses of Concord,' he said.

The track has also worked closely with local and state authorities in improving the traffic flow on race weekends, he said, and Route 106 improvements to further improve traffic near the track are already in the works, with state highway planners. On race weekends, the track draws about 105,000 people, he said.

The speedway's reputation, Gappens said, adds to the appeal of the idea. 'We have 21 years of good history of being a very positive influence in New Hampshire,' he said.

There is doubt whether the casino bill will pass, and both gambling supporters and opponents are scrambling to shore up votes. The House has never passed a gambling bill, and it would require a two-thirds majority to override the promised veto by Gov. John Lynch.

Gappens said the bill needs to pass to retain the 'New Hampshire Advantage,' a term coined by former Gov. Stephen Merrill in the 1990s and used often by Lynch to promote the state as a great place to live, work and do business. Casinos and other initiatives in surrounding states are threatening that advantage, he said.

'This state has always had an advantage over our neighbors, and it bothers me that we're stepping away from that,' Gappens said.

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