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February 07. 2013 10:54PM

A casino dream is shared by many in Salem

SALEM - Crowds poured into the grandstands at Rockingham Park Thursday night, but there wasn't a horse to be found on the track.

During a community forum held at Salem's aging racetrack, officials from Millennium Gaming offered a glimpse of the park's future should pending legislation to legalize Granite State gaming pass in Concord this year.

Several hundred citizens, many of them area business executives, sat in the audience, eager to get a closer look at the conceptual plans for a new Rockingham Park.

The state's casino bill will head before the Senate on Feb. 19.

"It's a long process in this state," longtime park president Ed Callahan said. Should the bill pass in the Senate, it would then head to the House and the state Ways and Means Committee.

"This isn't going to happen overnight by any means, but the support of Salem is very, very important," Callahan said. "We're hoping for a strong vote."

Millennium Gaming co-founder Bill Wortman said his hope is to replace Rockingham Park's main grandstand building with a 400,000-square-foot casino, restore barns and add a parking deck.

Eventually, a hotel would be added onsite . all bearing a similar design to the original architecture.

Traffic studies are being conducted first to address the estimated 10,000 or so people expected to visit the casino daily.

Wortman, who vowed to continue charitable gaming at Rockingham Park, said he believes "the landscape in Concord is really beginning to shift."

"A revitalized Rock would mean revenue and jobs," said Wortman, who has been in the gaming business for more than 35 years. "We're not just optimists; we have a long record of success in other states."

Wortman said the Meadows Racetrack, located just outside Pittsburgh, has many similarities to Rockingham Park.

Company officials showed a photograph of the Meadows Racetrack from the early 1970s, noting it looks very much like Salem's historical racetrack did in its heyday.

Built in 1964, the Meadows Racetrack is 60 years younger than 100-year-old Rockingham Park, but both had fallen on difficult times.

In 2004, casino gambling was legalized in Pennsylvania. Millennium Gaming purchased the Meadows property shortly after state legislation passed, Wortman said.

The site's horse barns were in disrepair at the time of the purchase, and in 2006 Millennium Gaming embarked on a lengthy restoration process.

Company officials are currently in the process of adding a 300-room hotel.

Wortman said it would take between 18 and 20 months to transform the Salem track in a similar manner.

"Our plan with the Rock is to still have racing, though we haven't determined exactly how," he added. "We think there's an advantage to having racing as we're the only location in the state of New Hampshire that is equipped to have racing."

Racing is held at the Meadows 220 days per year, Millennium Gaming officials said, and it's been quite successful.

The facility has also served as a venue for live entertainment, with such big-name acts as Willie Nelson performing concerts there.

Wortman said he has similar hopes for Salem, noting that the arrival of the Pennsylvania casino has been a boon for local business, preceding the arrival of many hotels and restaurants - and jobs.

Sharing conceptual drawings, Wortman said the plan is to invest over $450 million in renovating Salem's racetrack, creating 2,500 construction jobs in the process.

Once the new casino is open, it would create several thousand more jobs, Wortman said.

"When you look at a gaming facility, it's like a big city," he said.

Average pay would be $43,000 annually.

"We like to think we don't create jobs, we create careers," Wortman added. "And we like to hire local."

Callahan reminded citizens that six seats are still available on the town's newly formed Casino Advisory Committee. The deadline to apply for a spot on the committee is Feb. 20.

aguilmet@newstote.com

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