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Salem at center of casino bill debate

SALEM — Nowhere is the battle over casino gambling in the state more keenly felt than in Salem.

Rockingham Park has been seen as one of the likely landing spots for a casino. With resort casinos nearing reality in neighboring Massachusetts, many proponents of New Hampshire casinos see it as a race against the clock.

On Wednesday, the House voted 173-172 to kill casino gambling; it is expected the House will reconsider the vote next week.

Last June, 81 percent of Salem voters in a nonbinding referendum supported a Rockingham Park casino. But three of Salem’s eight state representatives — Marilinda Garcia, Bianca Garcia and Patrick Bick — all voted to put a stop to Senate Bill 366, which would have established two casinos with 5,000 video slot machines and 240 table games.

While the various casino bills that have made their way through the State House have changed, Marilinda Garcia said two things have remained consistent: her position and “the very valid concerns of many New Hampshire citizens that we are selling out New Hampshire interests to developers from Las Vegas for a quick buck.”

Salem state Rep. Joseph Sweeney said he was disappointed by Wednesday’s vote.

“After having made great strides on gaming, to lose by one vote was a major loss for the state,” said Sweeney, a Republican. “I typically don’t comment on how other representatives in my delegation vote, but I will say that the people of Salem have a right to be heard through their representatives, and on this issue, the voice of Salem is clear.”

At Rockingham Park, President and General Manager Ed Callahan said he was disappointed in the votes against expanded gaming and has been disappointed that Marilinda Garcia and Bianca Garcia have consistently voted against the will of 81 percent of Salem’s voters.

While there is no guarantee that Rockingham Park would automatically get a casino gambling license if it were legal in the state, Las Vegas-based Millennium Gaming, Inc. has a plan for a $600-million-plus casino development at Rockingham Park that would include a hotel and entertainment venues. The company has estimated that the development would create as many as 3,000 construction and gaming jobs.

Millennium has an option to buy the track and the company has stated that it would bid for a casino license if the Legislature ever makes that a reality.

On the town side of politics, Selectman Stephen Campbell said he was also disappointed by Wednesday’s vote at the State House.

“Given how close the vote was, I am disappointed by the three Salem reps that voted against gambling,” said Campbell. “My understanding is that there will be a reconsideration vote next week, and I hope that we can find the few votes we need.”

Although Wednesday’s vote was another defeat for state gambling, Callahan said there are some positives to take from the razor-thin vote margin.

“I think it reflects very positively that there is quite an opportunity and appetite for two facilities over a single facility,” said Callahan. “I don’t think anyone was as sure of that in the past.”

Callahan said he is also hopeful that representatives now realize that casinos in neighboring Massachusetts will become a reality sooner rather than later.

“Our last chance to beat Massachusetts to opening day is this bill,” he said.

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