ROCHESTER, NH — Legislators in Concord are currently debating Senate Bill 366, which seeks to allow for the selection and operation of two casinos in New Hampshire, including the operation of video slot machines and table games.
Introduced by Senator Lou D’Allesandro of Manchester, the proposed legislation has won the approval of the Senate by 15 votes to 9, and is now being considered by the House Ways and Means Committee.
Should the bill eventually pass, and be signed into law by the governor, it is widely expected that the main site for a casino would be at Rockingham Park racetrack in Salem. Making a strong pitch for Rochester to be the second site, are Rochester Fair General Manager Mark Perry and his board of directors, and to this end they have engaged the services of a Racing and Gaming consultant, Bill McLaughlin, who is based in Michigan.
The purpose for the fair’s involvement, said Perry, is to provide the non-profit organization with a revenue stream that would allow for the return of traditional harness racing to the fairground. The racing was discontinued in 2008, after a run of over 130 years, as the cost of operating the program was outstripping the return from the tote betting by tens of thousands of dollars annually.
“New Hampshire should take Maine’s approach,” said Perry, and provided an overview of the Rochester Fair as follows:
“The 2014 Rochester Fair will be the 139th annual fair dating back to 1874 when the Fair Association was founded — it was formed by 70 men who paid a dollar each for membership and was successfully opened three weeks later. Harness Racing at the Fair dated back to its origin in the late 1800s. Harness Racing, which is very closely tied to the agricultural community, operated successfully at the Fair until 2008. At that time the Fair Board was forced to discontinue racing to reduce expenses as a result of declining revenue due to the recession.
“This was a very unpopular decision and the Fair Board has been looking for alternatives to bring back racing even since. Over the past several years, neighboring states have enacted slot machine legislation with some of the benefit going to the harness industry. This has allowed the harness industry to strengthen and restore its economic benefit to the regions.”
"The re-establishment of live racing at the Rochester Fair will give our community another tool to market the excitement of our 10-day annual event,” said Perry
He maintains that a racing and slot facility in Rochester will favorably impact the entire region, not just Rochester.
“We estimate a racing and gaming project will have the potential of bringing in hundreds of construction jobs as well as 500 to 600 part- and full-time jobs,” he said.
“We are just beginning the process and will work to get more local backing,” said Perry, naming the mayor, city councilors, the Chamber and civic institutions as desirable allies.
“We want to test the waters and have spoken to some elected officials about our intent. Those we have spoken with are in favor of our effort,” Perry said.
McLaughlin, contacted by the Rochester Times, provided the remarks he recently made to Ways and Means Committee legislators, on behalf of the Rochester Fair Association.
He said Rochester and the surrounding community would “for all the right reasons” make an ideal area for a secondary casino site.
He then distributed logistical information, prepared by Somersworth-based Strategic Market Advisors, that included population totals and annual growth rates for gaming facilities in northern Massachusetts and Maine.
He said a Rochester-sited casino would be an economic engine for the Tri-City area with jobs in hospitality positions including customer service representatives, supervisors, managers in the core gaming operations as well as jobs in human resources, marketing accounting and security.
Perry stressed that should a casino be located in Rochester, it would not be sited at the fairground. McLaughlin said there are a number of potential sites, with high traffic counts, between turnpike exits 11 and 15.
Should the casino legislation pass, and Rochester is picked as a secondary site, McLaughlin said, the Rochester Fair would seek out “the right corporate partner,” and market it like Oxford, Maine has done.
“Rockingham Park might be four of five times bigger, but this would be a Class II, and have a tremendous economic impact for the area,” said McLaughlin.
Rochester Chamber of Commerce President Laura Ring she would talk to her board of directors on Friday to ascertain their position vis-a-vis the casino proposal.
Mayor TJ Jean, speaking for himself and not for the council, said he has no issue with SB 366 and revenue sharing, but personally does not favor Rochester as a casino site.
“That is not the way to go for Rochester. We want good quality jobs from commercial and industrial development. Rockingham and Loudon Speedway are good destinations (for a casino), but it is not the way to go for Rochester. It would have a negative impact on our social well-being. I would need to see a lot more data to persuade me the other way,” said Mayor Jean.
Reprinted with permission from Foster's Daily Democrat www.fosters.com