With Rockingham Park's Demise, Small-Time Casinos Seek to Attract Local Gamblers

Feb 17, 2017

 Salem residents vote next month on a zoning change to allow charitable gaming facilities in certain parts of town. The move comes after the closure last year of Rockingham Park. The former race track had been the primary venue in the state for such games. As NHPR contributor Ted Siefer reports, a new crop of mini-casinos are trying to get in on the action -- and not just in Salem.

 

Dan Dandreo is the proprietor of one of three prospective poker rooms in Salem. He’s calling his place Cheers.

"I love that song," he said. " 'You wanna go where everyone knows your name.' ”

One thing Dandreo wants to make clear during a recent tour of the site he’s picked out for Cheers -- a cavernous former gym on the north side of town -- is that  it’s not going to be like the old Rockingham Park.

"The amount money they had and the players were phenomenal," he said. "And with all due respect to the people over there, the managers, it was by far the biggest dump in history. It should've been torn down many years ago.”

Dandreo, a lifelong poker player, says Cheers is going to be a different kind of place. His model is the Borgata in Atlantic City.

Developer Dan Dandreo at what he hopes will be the future site of the Cheers Poker Room & Casino in Salem.
Credit Ted Siefer

 "The TV viewing will be better that any house you’ve seen," he said. "It’s going to be absolutely gorgeous. It’s going to be a very comfortable room, real high-end chairs, real high-end tables. it’s going be a business that the community will be very proud of.”

Not exactly grandpa’s bingo night.

If it gets the green light, Cheers would join a list of small-scale charitable gambling operations to pop up in southern New Hampshire in recent months. Two opened in Nashua alone in November, and old favorites like the Seabrook Poker Room have been sprucing themselves up.

One reason for this activity is that the pot is sweeter than it was a few years ago, when the state raised the betting limits on games.The change led to a surge in revenue at some poker rooms. But the more immediate factor is the closure of Rockingham: Dandreo and others want to capture the tracks old clientele.

With its felt-topped tables, roulette wheels, and  guys hunched over stacks of chips, the gaming section at the Boston Billiard Club in Nashua has an unmistakable casino vibe.

Floor manager Jess Forslind says since the casino opened, business has been good, even on weeknights.

"Tuesday was busy, we had five tables going," she said. "Even Sunday, the weekends are triple and double, so we’re just really busy."

But here’s the question: is this gambling in all but name, in a state where the Legislature has repeatedly if narrowly rejected legalizing casino gambling?

Not quite. The most you can raise a bet is $4. The most you can bring to any game is $500.

And supporters of the industry, for lack of a better term, stress that this is charitable gaming: Dozens of charities around the state get a 35 percent cut of the proceeds. And those charities are often among the biggest local boosters of new gaming spots.

Richard O’Shaughnessy is the executive director of the Greater Salem Caregivers, which provides in-home support and medical transportation for seniors. He says charitable gaming became his organization's biggest fundraiser.

"Over a space of 10 years that was a 500,000 windfall for us," he said.

O'Shaughnessy was among several representatives of charitable groups, including the Greater Salem Boys and Girls Club, to speak at a planning board meeting last month in support of the zoning change.

The amendment going on the ballot next month would allow charitable gaming in a broad section of the commercial and industrial parts of Salem.

While nearly everyone spoke in support of the measure at the meeting last month, Michael Smith, a member of the town zoning board, was less enthusiastic.

"I did see some numbers that with the crowds you do get some people you don't want there," Smith said. "You have to tie up the police department, you have to tie up  some extra manpower. I'm concerned that possibly with 1-2-3-4 of these, we might need so many police officers.”

Still, given the promised benefit to charities -- and Salem's long history of hosting gaming -- the zoning change appears to have solid support. A recent Facebook poll showed residents supporting it 43 to 1. Those seem like pretty good odds.