A team of reporters at NHPR is gearing up for a series next week that looks at what a casino at Rockingham Park – could mean for the town of Salem. To prepare for that series, our economy reporter Emily Corwin traveled to Washington County in Western Pennsylvania. The racetrack and casino there, called The Meadows, is run by Millennium Gaming. That’s the same company that already has an option to buy Rockingham Park, if legislation passes.
Emily Corwin spoke with Morning Edition host Rick Ganley about just what kind of casino Salem might be looking at, should Millennium Gaming move in at Rockingham Park.
Q: So what does The Meadows casino look like?
It’s no Bellagio or Mirage – I mean, there’s no Chihuly sculptures or gardens with fountains or anything. And the cocktail waitresses aren’t scantily clad swimsuit models. From the outside it looks more like a shopping mall than anything else.
Q: Governor Hassan has repeatedly said she supports a - “high end -” casino. Is that how you would describe The Meadows?
You walk in and there are just endless rows of slot machines. The casino floor is almost 200,000 square feet. There’s a food court, a fancy steak restaurant that looks out over the racetrack and casino, and a third more affordable restaurant too.
Like I said, it’s on a different scale than Vegas or Atlantic city’s big casinos. So while it’s not showy, it’s certainly not cheap. Everything is made of solid materials, it’s clean and kind of sparkly.
They also have a bowling alley – although I don’t think there are any plans to have one of those in Salem.
Q: Is it all geared toward recreational gamblers, or are there high rollers who come to something of this scale?
Well the main floor is definitely recreational. But The Meadows has a quieter lounge with free food and half price drinks for high stakes slots players. Then there are two rooms for high stakes table games, which have this quiet, exclusive feel. There, you can place bets as high as $15,000 at a time. So these rooms are quiet and dimly lit. They don’t have cocktail waiters – they have butlers, who will do virtually anything you ask them to. I’m told players will have a butler take a car to a carwash, or buy a present for their girlfriends, or even go find a crispy crème donut someone is craving.
I have to say tho – I was there on a Tuesday around noon – and I saw only one fellow playing blackjack in the high stakes lounge.
Q: Ok if there aren’t a lot of these high-rollers, who goes to The Meadows, for the most part?
I do think I would have seen more young people if I had been there on a weekend. But overwhelmingly, both during the day and at night --I saw a LOT of older retired folks. Probably working and middle class, maybe 50 to 85 years old… a lot of couples. And probably more retired women than men, at least at the slot machines.
Q: So how much of what you saw at The Meadows in Western Pennsylvania do you think would be the same if Millenium Gaming opened a casino at Rockingham Park in Salem?
I mean, it’s all speculation still – but I think there’s a lot we have in common. Millenium is now looking at investing about $600 million in a Salem Casino – over the last six years, they’ve invested about $550 million in The Meadows. One thing to note is that Western PA has a natural gas boom right now, so there are Marcellus Shale employees in town with a lot of expendable income. Locals told me stories about playing blackjack with these guys, who would lay down $1000 in cash quite casually.
But other than that -- both Rockingham Park and The Meadows have big malls that are likely to cross-pollinate with the casino – and both regions have similar age demographics. Mainly, a lot of senior citizens. AND – there are a lot of similarities here – both towns are near state borders, and about 45 minutes from a major city. Boston, obviously, here, and Pittsburgh, in PA.
Q: When you walked around Washington, PA, what did people tell you about the casino?
It was honestly really hard to find people who were against the casino. And at the municipal level, folks like Larry Maggi, the Washington County commissioner, have found themselves almost lobbying for Millenium Gaming. Just last week Millenium paid the travel costs for Maggi and a few other local leaders to come up to New Hampshire and speak on their behalf before NH lawmakers.
I did track down one bar owner who says he lost racetrack customers when the bars and restaurants opened in the casino. But honestly even the recovering gambling addicts I talked to who hate what the casino did to their lives – say it’s been great for the local economy.