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May 23. 2013 7:48PM

Casino vote stirs emotions on both sides

The organization representing construction workers in New Hampshire decried the 199-164 vote by the House on Wednesday to kill casino gambling, while the restaurant and lodging association applauded the move.

The business community was as divided as the Legislature on the issue — so much so that two leading industry trade groups could not build enough consensus to take a stand.

The Retail Merchants Association and the Business and Industry Association both remained neutral throughout the debate, and declined to react to the outcome.

"Our members were pretty split," said Nancy Kyle, president and CEO of the Retail Merchants Association of New Hampshire.

"We have been neutral on gambling for many years, basically because we have a divided membership," said Adrienne Rupp, vice president of communications for the Business and Industry Association.

One group that came out aggressively against the bill, the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, applauded the House vote.

"We encouraged our members to call their representatives in the weeks leading up to the vote," said NHLRA President and CEO Mike Somers. "We contacted all legislators in the House in an e-mail blast about a week ago, and followed that up with a letter. We invested a lot of time in this effort and I believe the members of the board are quite happy with the result."

Many restaurant and hotel operators in the state saw a casino as "cannibalizing" the existing hospitality and tourism industry, Somers said.

The vote came as a big disappointment to the construction and building trades, which had lobbied hard for passage. Joe Casey, president of the New Hampshire Building and Construction Trades Council, found fault with both political parties.

"I believe the House (Democratic) leadership is trying to force a broad-based tax on the governor and the Senate," he said. "And I believe that the Republicans who were for gaming last year and all of the sudden are not for gaming this year were just playing politics at the expense of New Hampshire workers, and that's pretty sad."

Casey said the construction of the casino would have helped boost employment for an industry that's lost 10,000 jobs since the Great Recession began in 2008. He pointed to the experience of other states like Pennsylvania, where the arrival of a casino triggered other construction jobs nearby.

"When you put in a project like that, it attracts all types of other infrastructure and construction jobs in the surrounding communities," he said. "We need to get to work, and that (new casino) would have done it."

Casey said the devastation of the construction industry has largely gone unnoticed because it is so dispersed throughout the state and spread out over multiple companies.

"Had one manufacturing plant laid of 10,000 workers, you'd certainly hear about it," he said, "but when the construction industry statewide loses 10,000 construction jobs, and there is no single voice, no one pays attention. And now, because the industry is saturated with out-of-work employees, wages and benefits for those who remain go down."

While Casey saw the casino as critical to the viability of his industry, representatives of arts and entertainment venues viewed it as a threat to their existence.

"I'm very relieved," said Nicolette B. Clarke, executive director of the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord. Clarke testified twice against the bill — once before the joint House and Senate committee and once before a House subcommittee focused on community impact.

She said the 1,500-seat venue proposed for a casino would compete for exactly the same acts that are the lifeblood of places like the Capitol Center, the Music Hall in Portsmouth, the Palace Theater in Manchester and the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom.

"We feel like we can compete with each other because we're all paying the same rates," she said. Experience elsewhere has shown casino operators with their national reach can easily outbid local venues.

The Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce, which came out against the casino just before the vote, was the only chamber in the state to take a stand.

"I would have to say our board is pleased that gambling was turned down," said Chamber President Doug Bates. "The 35 votes was not a huge margin, but I thank those who voted against it."

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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