Gambling bill sponsors present their rationale
January 27, 2010
LANCASTER — A small but intensely interested crowd turned out on Saturday at the Town Hall to hear a panel of proponents discuss the gambling bill proposed in the 2010 legislative session. The bill would allow one community in both Coös and Grafton Counties host a single gambling site.
In his welcoming remarks, Rep. Herb Richardson of Lancaster, who arranged the forum on the as-yet-unnumbered Senate bill, said that he hopes to hear from his constituents on whether they want him to vote "yea" or "nay."
The bill's prime sponsor, state Senator Lou D'Allesandro, a Democrat of Manchester, who serves as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee was described by District I executive councilor Ray Burton as "a great friend of the North Country."
He explained that he and others had worked to tweak last year's version of the expanded gambling bill that did not pass. The bill's benefits, Sen. D'Allesandro believes, remain the same: good-paying jobs, private investment, and new revenues for state, county, and local government.
All the monies that would be invested in six gambling venues — four in the southern part of the state, likely including Rockingham Park, Seabrook Greyhound Park, and Belmont; plus one in Grafton County, likely off I-93 in Lincoln, and the other in Coös, likely in Berlin — would come from the private sector, he said.
Some 2,000 to 3,000 temporary construction jobs would result, and, when all six casinos were fully activated, about 5,000 new good-paying jobs with benefits would be created.
"Good-paying jobs" were defined as those paying above-minimum-wage rates that typically range from $10 to $20 an hour, plus benefits.
If a municipality voted to give a green light to a casino operation in a location authorized by the pending bill, the selected developer would also pay millions of dollars in fees to the state.
Only those who pass a strict vetting process conducted by the state Attorney General's Office could invest in a specific site, however, Sen. D'Allesandro explained.
Under his bill, the state Department of Safety would supervise the operation.
"No community could be forced to have a casino; it would be a local option," he said.
His proposed bill calls for a 39 percent tax take, divvied up among the state, all 10 counties, and local government, as well as a social services component to help addicted gamblers recover.
The state now has a 7 percent unemployment rate, Sen. D'Allesandro reminded the audience.
He urged all New Hampshire residents who support expanded gambling to be in touch with their state representatives.
When asked if gambling would introduce social problems into the state, he replied, "It would not be like Atlantic City, but more like Delaware." Delaware, which Sen. D'Allesandro believes is the best model to copy, has three gambling locations, which in 2007 generated nearly $218 million in direct-to-the state revenues.
"The public has got to speak if you think it is the best thing for New Hampshire," the senator said, reiterating that gaming would produce public revenues from private investment.
Sen. Gallus, a Republican of Berlin, described the "economic devastation" in his hometown city of Berlin and across Coös County, the result of mill and factory closings.
The gambling bill, of which he is a co-sponsor, has great potential to create job opportunities in Grafton and Coös, he said. Former mill workers in Groveton and Berlin have had to accept minimum wages jobs without benefits and often work two or three jobs to come up with an income that is still not comparable to what they previously earned.
"Berlin is not a pretty picture," he lamented. "With a population of 9,000, it isn't what it was. At the turn of the 20th century it had 30,000 people, almost as many as the entire county now holds. We've had an implosion of job opportunities. We need to bring back some jobs!"
The bill, Sen. Gallus admitted, is really about Rockingham and Millennium Gaming, which has promised to invest millions to revitalize the racetrack as a destination casino. The bill's provisions for two North Country casinos are only "chained onto the wagon." Nonetheless, North Country residents and taxpayers should get behind the bill, he said.
Rep. Edmond Gionet, a Republican of Lincoln said he, too, saw the job potential in establishing a casino, just off I-93. Lincoln has transformed itself into a resort town, primarily during the ski season, but many jobs are only seasonal and carry no health insurance benefits, he said. Business owners are struggling to pay property taxes on Route 3, once called the "Gold Coast." The state is struggling with a large revenue shortfall.
Hollywood Slots in Bangor, Me., he said, could serve as an example of the kind of benefits the North Country could reap from relatively modest-sized casinos that likely would be open 24/7.
Jim Rafferty of N. H. Charitable Gaming displayed a schematic drawing of the casino complex that he would like to create on Berlin's Main Street. His proposal features what potentially could be a three-phase $50 million project.
Phase I calls for a $7 million investment to rehabilitate the Albert Theater, filling it with 250 slot machines, live entertainment, two restaurants, and a 10-table game pit, plus creating a large parking lot.
Gambling venues are labor-intensive, meaning that many jobs would be created, he pointed out. The city would also benefit from both secondary and tertiary jobs. "We'd sell a lot of beer, which calls for delivery services," Mr. Rafferty said.
When queried by a former Berlin resident, tax collector Denys Draper of Easton, about the ability of Berlin's infrastructure to support a big casino on Main Street (Route 16), Sen. Gallus replied that Main Street could handle the traffic and the development.
Ralph Collins of Berlin explained that the Planning Board on which he serves looks very carefully at all development proposals and could be counted to consider all factors.
Skiers, snowmobilers, hikers, ATVers, and other outdoor enthusiasts make up the potential clientele that would have to be lured to Berlin to patronize a casino, Mr. Rafferty explained. Lake Tahoe is an example that demonstrates that this can be done.
Rep. Paul Ingersoll, a Democrat of Berlin, said that a bus now goes from Conway to Bangor's Hollywood Slots. Concord Trailways runs two buses patronized by some 550 gamblers a week that travels to Conn.'s Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.
"Let's make it possible to keep our money in our own state," he urged.
Mell Brooks of Littleton, who ran a restaurant in Portland, Ore., where, he said, he witnessed 10,000 hours of video-slot gambling spoke against the bill's passage. Although he netted half-a-million-dollars over nearly five years, Mr. Brooks said he had had to give it up. The "social evils" that came with gambling were too great, he explained.
Rep. Gionet said that the small-venue-style gambling in Oregon is not comparable to the controlled gambling that would be allowed under Sen. D'Allesandro's bill.
Rep. Evalyn Merrick and Rep. Bill Remick, both of Lancaster, and Rep. Robert Theberge of Berlin were also on hand, as was Eugene Montgomery of Groveton, who is running in the Feb. 2 primary for the Democratic nomination in Coös 2.