NH casino backers fear loss of revenue to Mass.
New Hampshire's lakes, mountains and rural charm — not to mention its tax-free status — have long enticed Massachusetts to cross the border to play, relax and shop for bargains.
But with Massachusetts embracing development of up to three resort-style casinos and a slots parlor, some in New Hampshire now fear a reverse flow of dollars to its southern neighbor and a lost economic opportunity.
Supporters of legalized casino gambling, stung by a recent setback in the Legislature, are regrouping with an eye toward next year's session and the hope of authorizing one or more casinos in the Granite State. They say the uptick in casino activity in Massachusetts, Maine and elsewhere in the region adds a sense of urgency to act before the gambling market hits saturation.
Candidates for governor from both major parties have offered varying degrees of qualified support for casinos. A veto pledge by outgoing Gov. John Lynch was seen as a factor in the defeat in March of a bill to allow up to four casinos in New Hampshire.
"It's not a question of if any more, it is when," insisted Rich Killion, a spokesman for Millennium Gaming, which is eyeing a $450 million casino at Rockingham Park in Salem, just over the Massachusetts border off Interstate 93.
The proposed facility could create up to 2,000 permanent jobs, attract 4 million visitors a year — about 60 percent from Massachusetts — and generate $140 million in new annual tax revenue for the state, Killion said, making it too lucrative a prospect for New Hampshire to ignore.
"And to simply cede this opportunity to Massachusetts when we have had decades long competitive advantage over the Bay State in terms of retail sales, in terms of the absence of a sales and income tax, in terms of being a tourist destination, would be a choice I think New Hampshire would regret for generations to come," he said.
Casino foes are unmoved. They cite the potential negative effects of gambling and concerns that casinos would merely siphon off consumer dollars from established businesses.
"These casinos are cannibals," said Jim Rubens, a former state senator who chairs the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling. "They take money out of your existing local economy, your local car dealers, your local supermarkets, your local hotels, and it's a zero sum game."
Rubens predicts that Massachusetts, which has set a minimum investment of $500 million for casino bidders, will seize the market for resort-style, destination casinos and leave New Hampshire with so-called "convenience casinos" — smaller facilities that mostly attract nearby residents. He has accused Millennium of employing a "bait-and-switch" tactic that promises a large-scale casino but ultimately delivers something considerably less.
Killion dismisses such criticism as "empty and hollow rhetoric," while acknowledging that Millennium's current development proposal does not include convention space or other amenities included in many of the current casino proposals in Massachusetts.
A recent analysis by the independent New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies projected a net benefit to the state of legalized casino gambling, but one that could be watered down by factors including regional competition and social costs associated with gambling. Those factors could reduce to $53 million the net annual gain to the state, according to the analysis.
"The question is less of whether there is a market, but how much of a market is there," said Stephen Norton, the center's executive director.
Size and location would be critical to the success of any casino, Norton said.
"You couldn't put a slots parlor in the middle of New Hampshire and expect it to have a net economic benefit to the state," but a facility in the southern part of the state near the Massachusetts border could attract a larger population base with more discretionary income, he said.
The closest casino proposal in Massachusetts is currently at Suffolk Downs in Boston, about 30 miles from the border.
All of which puts Rockingham Park squarely at the focus of the New Hampshire casino debate.
Once among the region's premier racetracks, "The Rock," as it is affectionately known, has recently fallen upon hard times. The 106-year-old facility ended live racing in 2010 and now relies primarily on simulcasting and special events for survival.
Millennium Gaming holds an option to buy Rockingham and William Wortman, a principal in the company, owns a 20 percent stake in the park. The company claims strong backing within Salem, pointing to a unanimous vote by town selectmen last month to support Rockingham's casino push.
Edward Callahan, the park's president and general manager, hinted that Rockingham may be forced out of business without casino gambling.
"If you are not going to get the tools you are going to have to do something else," he said.