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Nonprofits value game revenues, leery of casinos

Staff Report
February 08. 2014 10:19PM
Players gather at Community Bingo on Holt Avenue in Manchester on a recent Friday night for some charitable gaming. (/Union Leader)

If you stop by Ocean Gaming Casino at Hampton Beach next week to play blackjack or poker, chances are you'll be playing for Catholic nuns.

Welcome to "casino" gambling in New Hampshire.

By state law, only "charitable gaming" is permitted here, with 35 percent of gross revenues (after prizes) going to the licensed charity for that night.Games of chance raised $4,674,168 for 389 licensed charities in the last fiscal year. Bingo and "Lucky 7" ticket sales actually raise a lot more than games of chance, a combined $8,497,283 for 293 charities last year.

Some nonprofits that depend on gaming to raise funds, and those that operate the for-profit facilities where the games are played, say they're worried about what a large casino would do to their revenues.

Jan DiMarzio is general manager of Community Bingo Center in Manchester, where charities run bingo games and sell Lucky 7 tickets every night. She said she is "very concerned" about competition from a casino in New Hampshire or Massachusetts.

"Your slots player is your bingo player," she said.

At Foxwoods, for instance, "they have slot machines in the bingo hall. You can actually play your slot machines and play bingo at the same time."

DiMarzio, who's been running bingo for nearly 30 years, said the business has changed. "It used to be your particular night, you had your loyal followers for that particular charity."And while there are still some of those players, she said, "the calls we get on a daily basis are 'What's your jackpot?' They call around."

Rhonda Lane is fundraising director for Wolverine Youth Football in Derry, which holds two games a week at Community Bingo Center. She said the revenue is "a lifeline" for her group, paying for uniforms and referees.

The club's bingo revenues have been diminishing; It used to net $60,000 to $70,000 "in the best years," but now raises around $30,000 a year, Lane said.

But that's still three-quarters of her annual budget. "We've been able to keep registration fees low because of the bingo," she said.

Sarah Garvin is director of Marion Gerrish Community Center in Derry, which hosts some local community groups. She depends on the revenues from charity games at Community Bingo Center to keep the 150-year-old building operational.

"In the past few years, due to the bingo revenue we received, we have been able to complete much-needed updates to our building, including a new heating system, new flooring throughout the building and updating the electrical systems," she said in an email.

Actually, bingo itself is a "loss leader," according to Paul Kelley, director of the state Racing and Charitable Gaming Commission. The real money is in Lucky 7 tickets, which sell for 50 cents apiece but generate big bucks. Each Lucky 7 ticket has a pull tab. Removing the tab reveals objects displayed in a row. If all the objects are the same, the player wins.

Under state law, commercial bingo operators have to hold bingo games in order for Lucky 7 tickets to be sold. Fraternal organizations such as the American Legion or Elks don't have to hold bingo to sell the tickets, according to Kelley.

In the last fiscal year, Lucky 7 ticket sales raised nearly $10.3 million for charities, according to the RCGC Bingo lost nearly $1.8 million, bringing the combined net to about $8.5 million.

Lane has seen that with her own fundraising nights. "You lose money on bingo when you open your doors," she said. "The money's made in the pull tabs. They love it. It's almost like a little slot machine: you open it up and hope you get three cherries."

She said the worst-case scenario would be a Massachusetts casino that opens near the state line and has a bingo hall. "We've been struggling enough over the last couple of years. Our numbers are dropping off. The population is aging and, unfortunately, dying off."

Bingo hasn't "evolved" to interest younger players like games of chance have, she said. "Something needs to be done to spice it up a little bit."

That's why she's excited about a legislative proposal to allow simulcasting of "carryover coverall" games. That "could drive pots and interest the young ones," she said.

Seacoast Fundraising LLC, which operates The Poker Room in Hampton Falls, posts on its website "contributions" to 121 charities from games of chance that have totaled more than $6.7 million since 2006. Last year, charities received $411,791.

Seacoast Repertory Theatre in Portsmouth has raised more than a $250,000 since 2006 from games of chance at The Poker Room.

Judi Currie, managing director for SRT, said ticket sales only cover about three-quarters of its operating costs. The $18,473 the theater group raised from games of chance last year is "approximately what it takes to pay the electric bill here at Bow Street for a year," she said.

Anthony Fusco is co-owner of Ocean Gaming Casino, which has nightly charity games of chance, including blackjack, roulette and craps. "We run our room like a normal casino operation, and we try to give our customers the best time we can give them here," said Fusco, who has worked in Las Vegas and at Foxwoods.

Among this month's charities? The Sisters of the Holy Cross in Manchester - which did not return phone calls asking about it.

Fusco said he was glad to see the New Hampshire House pass Keno, which he said would be good for smaller operations such as his. But he said they would never be able to compete with a large casino.

"There's going to be slot machines. It's just going to be more, different types of games and higher bets. There's just going to be more to offer than we can offer over here."

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