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Many in Salem disappointed by casino vote

SALEM — With Wednesday's legislative vote against legalization of casino gaming in the Granite State, a number of Salem residents and town officials said the news was a bitter blow for those who'd hoped to see their casino dreams realized in a revitalized Rockingham Park.

Senate Bill 152 failed before the House with a 199-164 vote.

With the House also voting against reconsideration, the bill won't return before the legislature during the current two-year session.

Salem's nine state representatives, all Republican, were divided on the issue, with five voting in favor, three voting against and one declining to vote on the item.

Representatives Gary Azarian, Ronald Belanger, Robert Elliot, Anne Priestly and Joe Sweeney all voted in favor of the casino.

Representatives Patrick Bick, Marilinda Garcia and John Sytek voted against the casino bill, while Rep. Bianca Garcia wasn't present in Concord on Wednesday.

Contacted on Thursday afternoon, Sytek said he wasn't against casino gaming, per se, but feels strongly that aspects of enforcement and regulations for such a facility need to be realized long before a casino is built.

"New Hampshire doesn't have a very good record of regulation and enforcement and if this is done, it has to be done right, from the start," Sytek said. "Many of us, myself included, would like to maintain the state's tradition of staying clean and corruption-free. So I'm perfectly willing to see (a casino) happen, but first we need to address enforcement issues."

Azarian, one of the bill's co-sponsors, expressed regret at some of his fellow legislators' votes.

"Obviously, I'm very disappointed in the actions of the House," Azarian said on Thursday. "We had the chance to add more jobs, to get needed revenues for education, for the Interstate 93 expansion. Now we'll be facing a huge budgetary shortfall."

Still, Azarian said he believed Millennium Gaming, the Las Vegas-based company that holds an option to purchase Rockingham Park, hasn't lost complete hope in the project.

William Wortman, co-owner of Millennium Gaming, Inc., was traveling on Thursday and was unable to be reached for comment.

However, immediately following the vote a spokesman said the company would remain committed to Salem and the former racetrack, having already revealed plans to redevelop the site into a $600 million casino resort should gaming ultimately be legalized in the state.

"But unfortunately for us, if Massachusetts gets there before we do, we're going to see a lot of money flowing south," Azarian said. "And we're going to pay a very steep price come budget season."

A call made to Rockingham Park president and general manager Edward Callahan wasn't immediately returned on Thursday.

Salem Town Manager Keith Hickey called this week's outcome "an unfortunate turn of events."

"Many residents were in favor of having a casino in New Hampshire and building that casino here in Salem," Hickey said. "So as it stands now, we're left with no choice but to move forward as best as we can."

Hickey said he thought it was too early to tell whether the casino question would be raised again during a future legislative session.

There's no doubting the failure of SB 152 will be felt strongly by local retailers, particularly the vendors at the nearby Mall at Rockingham Park.

However, the racetrack's closest neighbors have remained tight-lipped on the matter so far.

Contacted on Thursday, Simon Property Group, owners of the Mall at Rockingham Park, declined to comment on the rejection of the casino bill.

"The Mall at Rockingham Park continues to thrive and plays a major role in the Salem business community," mall spokeswoman Annie Lahey said.

Salem Selectman Stephen Campbell, who served on the town's casino advisory committee, said he was "extremely disappointed" with Wednesday's outcome, noting that 81 percent of Salem's voters had indicated they favored expanded gambling via a non-binding question that appeared on the March ballot.

"Mostly, I'm disappointed with all of the people up in Concord that feel they need to tell people how to live their lives," Campbell said. "It's really about freedom now."

Campbell said the reality of potential revenues lost with the failure of the casino bill would "hopefully sink in" with the folks in Concord over the coming five weeks."It's a slim to none chance, but maybe when they begin fighting over revenues when they're tackling the state budget they'll come to their senses," Campbell added. "Though I doubt it will happen. The House and Senate are so divided right now."

Resident Harold Moore, who also served on the local casino advisory committee, expressed similar dismay.

"It's a very sad day for the town of Salem as well as for the state," Moore said on Thursday. "This is a huge economic defeat for us and I'm bitterly disappointed in our local representatives for not supporting this."

Moore said he felt it was too early to determine what the long-term economic impact of the bill's failure might be, but he's already fearing the worst.

"A big concern is this could ultimately result in an income tax for New Hampshire," he said. "It will be interesting to see how the governor handles the $80 million shortfall we're facing in revenues now, and I hope this doesn't mean further cuts for our schools, for social services."

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