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April 05. 2013 8:19PM

Hospitality group votes to oppose casino gambling

CONCORD - Concerns over lost business and damaging the state's family-friendly image had the board of the state's hospitality association this week voting to oppose casino gambling.

The Board of Directors of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association voted overwhelmingly at Wednesday's meeting to oppose casino gambling in New Hampshire, according to board chairman Joel Bourassa.

The board had previously been neutral on the issue, although about a decade ago the organization also opposed expanded gambling citing similar reasons.

"It is the opinion of the board that casino gambling revenues will come at the expense of other recreational activities in our Seacoast, lakes and mountains throughout the state," Bourassa wrote to members after the board's vote. "This will lead to reductions in rooms and meals taxes and losses in retail expenditures."

The board also heard presentations for the issue by Millennium Gaming, which has an option on Rockingham Park in Salem and wants to build a casino at the track if lawmakers approve Senate Bill 152, and from gaming opponent the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling.

The hospitality organization's president Mike Somers said Millennium was willing to spend more on marketing a casino than the organization's members spend combined. The board feared the casino's brand would become the state's image and that could be a problem, he said.

"It is also the board's opinion that the wholesome, family friendly image of New Hampshire will be eroded once casino gambling is enacted, and it will have a negative impact on the hospitality and tourism industry," Bourassa wrote to members.

Another concern said Somers is the proliferation of casinos as happened in Maine and other states. "One is never enough," he said. "It never seems to end."

The NHLRA board is the latest organization to weigh in on the issue of casino gambling, something the Senate has already approved and that Gov. Maggie Hassan is backing.

The governor included $80 million in her two-year budget proposal from casino licensing fees.

Last week the National Education Association - New Hampshire changed course and supported expanded gambling as a way to pay for essential state services such as higher education and catastrophic special education and transportation aid for school districts.

Last month two police organizations announced backing the casino gambling bill, although the NH Association of Chiefs of Police continues to oppose expanded gambling.

SB 152 is now before the House, which has traditionally opposed gambling.

The bill allows up to 5,000 video slot machines and 150 table games. State lottery officials predict a casino that size would produce about $120 million in revenue a year, although the independent New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies predicts a casino would net the state only $45 million or less due to competition from three planned Massachusetts casinos.

"This is a difficult debate statewide right now, but in the end, the board is committed to protecting the best interests of our diverse membership and the hospitality and tourism industry," Bourassa said.

The organization has more than 600 members statewide and Somers notes the membership is divided on the issue.

grayno@unionleader.com


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