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Deja vu for Nashua Chamber

Sunday News Correspondent

February 23. 2013 11:01PM

NASHUA - Nearly three years ago, the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce formally endorsed a proposal to introduce gaming to the state, with the idea that there would be at least two casinos allowed.

At the time, the chamber surveyed its membership, studied the issue and held a breakfast event focused on the casino proposal, according to Chris Williams, chamber president.

"The consensus amongst those in attendance and those surveyed and the board of directors was that gaming should receive careful consideration," Williams said last week. "Our board today is a little different now, but with that being said, I think the general opinion within the business community is the same, that it should still be considered."

Because the newest proposal would allow only one casino, Williams said, the chamber would have to revisit the issue before it made any formal endorsement again. Although some political insiders say Rockingham Park in Salem may be at the top of the list for a casino location, Williams said the existing Green Meadows Golf Course in Hudson may be a better venue for a larger convention center-type casino.

"If we were to pursue a gaming venue, I would see the chamber leaning more in that direction," Williams said of the Hudson site.

He described Hassan's placement of the gambling licensing revenue into her proposed budget as a bold move, opting to withhold judgment on whether it was appropriate.

"I am very curious to see how it plays out," said Williams.

Hassan budget

While there are people within Greater Nashua who support the concept of having a casino in New Hampshire, some are questioning the governor's inclusion of $80 million in new gambling licensing revenue in her budget proposal to the Legislature.

"It is a crapshoot at best, no pun intended," said Mike Rice, a Nashua resident for 40 years. "I am totally against the idea of her putting the $80 million into the budget."

Although Rice supports building a casino in the Granite State, he says it is not appropriate to include gambling revenue in the state budget when legislators have not yet approved the current casino proposal.

Sens. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, and Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, are sponsoring a bill to establish a casino in New Hampshire. The casino issue was also addressed by lawmakers at this same time last year when the House of Representatives ultimately rejected a different proposal to legalize casino gambling in the state.

Now, with Gov. Maggie Hassan's reliance on gambling revenue in her recommended budget plan, the possibility of having a casino in New Hampshire is being revived.

Casinos elsewhere

With casinos already in operation in Maine and now authorized in Massachusetts, Nashua resident Arthur Andrew says it makes sense to have a casino in New Hampshire.

"The moral aspects are overridden by the logic," said Andrew, who said that if the casino was well-regulated, it would help to keep any potential problems at bay. People have to look at the possible revenue it could bring in, said Andrew, adding it is difficult to ignore the money.

Sponsors of the casino bill say more than $100 million in new revenue for the state could be possible if the legislation was approved.

Jim Rubens, chairman of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, said last week that the Senate will likely pass the casino bill, but he is optimistic the 400 members of the House of Representatives will not.

"A lot of these representatives are extremely connected to their communities, and they are not buying the notion that there is some fairytale free lunch that somehow comes from a casino," said Rubens.

Still, he says it will be a tough fight. Rubens argues that Hassan's proposal to include $80 million in new gambling licensing revenue into her budget is not a bold move but a risky one.

"It will result in extreme embarrassment on the part of the governor and any legislators who vote for this. This is an irreversible error," said Rubens, categorizing it as a high-stakes tactic of cramming the issue down the throats of legislators.

The impact

Rubens warned Nashua officials that the city could potentially get slammed by tax increases if a casino is built in Hudson, which he said would then make Nashua the bedroom community. Rubens said casinos are anti-local business and that any revenues gained would not come close to covering the costs associated with a casino in Hudson, which he maintained would lead to a declining quality of life, require more local infrastructure improvements, additional transportation needs and extra housing.

Williams contends a New England casino would be vastly different from the casinos he visits in Las Vegas every two or three years. More locals would spend time at a New Hampshire casino, and the facilities would not likely be considered a destination casino, but instead popular for a day trip or a night out.

In an ideal world, Williams said, Greater Nashua would benefit from a convention center-type casino that would include a small performing arts venue.

Rice agreed, saying the proposal in Hudson includes the whole package, which he said is appealing, but may take longer to get off the ground compared with the proposal in Salem.

"Buses leave Nashua every day heading to a casino out of state," he said. "It is all around us."

Rice believes that with a Democratic governor in place who is pushing the concept, the chance of a casino eventually being built in New Hampshire is greater than ever.

Rubens disagrees, arguing it is not possible to receive $80 million in licensing money within the next budget cycle, noting it takes significant time to write the regulations, set up the criteria for bidders, complete background checks, receive local planning and zoning approvals and possibly even face litigation.

Crime connection

Nashua Police Chief John Seusing, who is a member of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, says he is indifferent about the casino proposal, explaining it is a bit premature for him to express his views on the matter.

In general, Seusing said, the possibility of building a casino in New Hampshire does raise some concerns, especially since it could affect traffic and crime rates.

There could be some unintended consequences associated with a casino, including the possibility of higher crime rates, the chief said. To be fair, however, Seusing said it will be up to the individual communities considering casinos to study the merits, as they will have more direct impacts from building a gambling facility in their neighborhood.

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