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December 07. 2012 12:46AM

Casino referendum could go before Salem voters for input

SALEM - Granite State gambling advocates are still holding out hope that Rockingham Park could one day be the site of the state's first legalized casino.

On Dec. 17, the Salem Board of Selectmen will hold a public discussion on whether to add a nonbinding referendum to the March ballot regarding a potential casino.

A positive vote wouldn't be legally binding, but it would give Rockingham Park officials a chance to gauge their neighbors' thoughts on the matter.

"We're still in the early stages of this discussion, but the details will be publicly discussed during the upcoming meeting," Town Manager Keith Hickey said on Thursday.

Edward Callahan, Rockingham Park president and general manager, said park officials have been attempting to add a casino to the former horse track for many years now. Callahan said initial attempts were made back in 1994, when Lincoln Downs in Rhode Island opened its slot machines, and other racetracks around the nation followed suit.

"At that time, we told the Salem selectmen we were interested in doing this too," Callahan said.

In March 1994, residents overwhelmingly approved a nonbinding vote to consider a Salem casino. A similar vote passed in 2003.

But since casino gambling has yet to be legalized in New Hampshire, those referendums never progressed further.

"Legislation has been a challenge," Callahan said. "But with a new governor soon to be in office, we feel it's time to see where the townspeople stand on this."

The historic racetrack dates to 1906, when the park opened for its first thoroughbred horse meet near the old Salem Depot. Gambling was still illegal in those days, so authorities shut down the operation within three days after learning that wagers were being processed underground. Over the years, the park was used for the now-defunct Rockingham Fair, a campsite for WWI soldiers, motorcycle races and a practice site for Olympic marathon runners. By 1933, gambling was legalized in New Hampshire and the park began holding regular horse races.

The park featured horse harness racing for a short time in 2009.

In 2010, the park was forced to discontinue live horse racing, though continues to offer simulcast racing and the occasional charity casino night event.

Last year a group of Salem town officials spent the day at The Meadowland, near Pittsburgh, Pa. The Meadowland is owned by the Millennium Gaming, the same developers hoping to restore the aging Salem racetrack to its former glory should casino gambling become legalized in New Hampshire.

Rockingham Park officials arranged for the trip, which was fully funded by the developers. Millennium Gaming still holds the option of opening a casino at the Salem racetrack if gaming is ever legalized in the Granite State.

Callahan noted that fans of casino gambling are now taking their business to places like Maine and Rhode Island, where casinos are legal.

"By opening up a casino at Rockingham Park, we'd be adding more jobs to the area. We'd be keeping much of this revenue in New Hampshire," he said.

The Salem Board of Selectmen will publicly discuss the gaming referendum during its Monday, Dec. 17, meeting, which is set to begin at 7 p.m. in Salem Town Hall.

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April Guilmet may be reached at AGuilmet@newstote.com.

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