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John DiStaso's Granite Status: Just who is looking to build a New Hampshire casino?

Senior Political Reporter

April 29. 2013 6:04PM

WHO'S IN THE GAME? As debate heats up at the State House, a major complaint about Senate Bill 152, the primary casino legalization bill, is that it's tailored to one potential bidder.

That entity is Millennium Gaming, the Nevada firm that has long held an option to buy Salem's Rockingham Park.

One of the leading purveyors of this belief is Jerry Gappens, general manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He brought his concerns to a key House gambling subcommittee last week.

But other gambling advocates say that's not the case. They note that state Lottery Commission Executive Director Charlie McIntyre told lawmakers just more than a week ago that he has spoken with five interested parties.

Who are they and how recent is their interest?

Well, three are obvious:

-- Millennium

-- Gappens' speedway.

-- Greenmeadow Country Club in Hudson, which says it has an entity ready and willing to build and operate a casino on its property.

Then there are potential out-of-state bidders.

SB 152 chief sponsor Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, saying he has "nothing to hide," tells us that in addition to Millennium, he has personally spoken to two groups:

-- Penn National Gaming, which has 29 casinos or racing facilities in 19 states, including a casino in Bangor, Maine, and is bidding for a casino license in Springfield, Mass.

A spokesman for the firm had no comment regarding New Hampshire, saying only that the firm is routinely "monitoring" developments on the gambling front in New Hampshire and nationally.

-- Mohegan Sun's management firm, whose officials D'Allesandro said he visited in Connecticut. The firm did not return our calls seeking comment.

D'Allesandro acknowledged his contacts with the two groups occurred more than a year ago, but he believes they remain interested in the single New Hampshire license if his bill passes.

Neil Bluhm, a major player in the gambling industry, last year expressed interest in a Nashua location for a casino. He set up a firm in the state, New Hampshire Gaming and Entertainment LLC, and hired the Dupont Group to facilitate his contacts with state officials.

But Bluhm, who has casinos in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Des Plaines, Ill. (near Chicago), earlier this year jumped into the bidding process for a slot machines parlor in Worcester, Mass., and has not yet rekindled his contacts in New Hampshire, including with the Dupont Group. It is unclear whether he will make a move.

His company's officials were in Worcester last Wednesday answering questions about their project there and did not return our call or email seeking comment.

Lottery chief McIntyre says the period of time between his contacts with gaming companies ranges from more than a year ago to one made "recently."

McIntyre said he is not taking sides on the bill, but is sure if it passes and becomes law, many more bidders "will come out of the woodwork. I believe a bunch of folks are lying in the weeds."

D'Allesandro said, "It's an open process and people will say what they will" about whether the bill favors Millennium. "But if you've got $500,000, you ought to apply for the license." That's the cost of a nonrefundable application fee.

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"WRITTEN FOR MILLENNIUM." Gappens on Thursday spoke bluntly before a subcommittee of the House "supercommittee" reviewing gaming.

"I'm a firm believer that this bill is written for Millennium," he said. "I don't feel it's really an open bidding process."

First, said Gappens, the bill would allow only one facility to be licensed. Gappens said he preferred a failed 2010 bill, which would have allowed as many as four gambling sites.

Second, he noted, this year's bill would allow up to 5,000 slot machines and 150 table games at the single location. Gappens said 5,000 slots are too many to be feasible at a location in Loudon.

Third, Gappens said, the bill would require a minimum capital investment of $425 million.

"I'm not sure it makes sense to end up with a $425 million building in Loudon, New Hampshire," he said.

And fourth, the bill would require the lottery commission to send out requests for applications within 60 days of the bill's passage. That, he said, would favor a firm such as Millennium, which has had a presence in the state and presumably has been preparing its bid for years.

D'Allesandro disagrees, predictably.

He said the time frame written into the bill was aimed at moving "before our competitors (in Massachusetts) get to it. If a company needs an extension, it can apply for one."

He said that while the bill calls for a minimum $425 million investment in a facility, "the number could have been higher. We originally talked about making it higher, as much as $500 million."

D'Allesandro noted that Millennium got in the game early. It purchased its Rockingham option in 2005, with co-CEO Bill Wortman personally becoming a part-owner shortly thereafter.

"That is what it is," D'Allesandro said. "Anybody else could have bought in," and Wortman, he said, should not be blamed for making an investment.

"In reality of whether this bill comes or goes, I think he's going to get his money back because the land has that much value," D'Allesandro said.

Gappens believes the $500,000 application fee should be placed in escrow and refunded to the unsuccessful bidders.

He said NHMS has lined up a gaming firm to build and operate a casino on the speedway's 1,100-acre tract. But he said he would have "a hard time" persuading his board of directors to sanction him "gambling" a $500,000 fee if it was nonrefundable or if the number of sites for a casino in the state was limited to one.

Gappens said there's little consolation in the bill's "vague" provision for the establishment of a committee to study the feasibility of additional future casino sites.

He said Maine initially licensed only one casino, which was built in Bangor in 2004. Eight years passed, he said, before Maine's second casino opened, in Oxford.

Overall, said Gappens, NHMS wants to maximize its investment in the motor speedway, which he said is an April-to-October operation, by making it a year-round destination.

He said the speedway has spent more than $20 million on improvements since buying from Bob and Gary Bahre in 2008. In 2012, the speedway attracted 400,000 visitors, ensuring a strong market for the new casino.

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WHERE WE STAND. So, with a month to go before an expected May 29 vote in the House, where does gambling stand?

Talking to people at the State House who are intimately involved on either side, it appears that if the vote were taken today, the bill would fail.

"We're behind," a supporter told us.

The spread we're hearing ranges widely, from 30 votes down to only five or six, with dozens of House members undecided or not saying how they feel.

There's a month to go and not a sure bet either way.

Most of the undecided members are Democrats, and a key issue with them is the $80 million licensing fee that Gov. Maggie Hassan placed in her budget for key programs. It was removed by the House.

Will Hassan bring these Democrats to her side when the time comes?

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POLLS AND MORE POLLS. Message to pollsters: It's an off-year in New Hampshire state and federal elections.

No matter, apparently.

First, the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling showed good news for U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Gov. Hassan.

The same poll showed U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte "under water" with a favorability rating of 44 percent and an unfavorable of 46 percent.

Late Wednesday, a WMUR poll conducted by the UNH Survey Center showed a much different result for Ayotte.

She had a favorable/unfavorable rating of 50/25 percent. It must be pointed out, though, that WMUR-UNH poll was taken earlier than the PPP but not released until April 25. In the meantime, Ayotte cast her controversial vote against the expansion of background checks to gun purchases made at gun shows and over the Internet.

That same poll showed Shaheen with a favorable/unfavorable of 59/23 percent. Good news there.

But it was not so good for the two Democrats in the U.S. House. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter's favorable/unfavorable was 31/32 percent and Rep. Annie Kuster's was 29/30 percent.

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LIMOUSINE SHAHEEN? The senior senator will be feted by the National Limousine Association at a fundraiser for her reelection campaign on May 21 during the NLA's "Day on the Hill."

Republicans will have fun with this one, and Democrats will point out that the NLA represents an industry that employs drivers, manufacturers and suppliers.

John DiStaso is senior political reporter of the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He can be reached at Twitter: @jdistaso.

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