NH News
5:00 am
Mon May 20, 2013

What Casino Money Can Buy: 48 Hours In Washington County, Pennsylvania

What would a casino at Rockingham Park mean for Salem city government? We traveled to Western Pennsylvania to find out. There, a $550 million casino and racetrack called The Meadows has injected millions into local government.

The Meadows is owned by Millennium Gaming, which has an option to buy Rockingham Park, pending legislation. The town of North Strabane, where The Meadows is located, has spent much of their take on new public safety facilities and staff. Washington County has distributed their take via a grants to private and public organizations, purchasing new public parks, historical society buildings, sports equipment, water and sewer infrastructure, and more.

The question that remains is: would New Hampshire -- and Salem in particular -- reap those same benefits bestowed upon Washington County, PA?

Salem Town Manager Keith Hickey has big dreams for the $18 million plus dollars he thinks a casino would bring his town -- every year.

Um, primarily, a property tax reduction, replacing the police department, we’d want to put some money aside… 

The bill the Senate passed would give Salem 3 percent of machine income at the casino, which Hickey estimates at $13.5 million.  On top of that, he guesses at least $5 mill in property taxes,

Along with increased meals and rooms taxes …It would just be a phenomenal revenue generator for the region.

And he’ll be the first to remind you that 81 percent of Salem residents voted in support of a casino on town meeting day.

Just outside of a popular lunch joint in Salem called Maddie’s, Betty Beshara can’t wait to talk about a casino at Rockingham Park.

I’m all for it. Obviously. I don’t see how we could lose at all.

People here know the talking points well: a casino could mean 1300 new jobs, an $80 million dollar license fee, tax revenue for their township and the state… Not everyone’s convinced.

Julius Caesar said “men gladly believe that which they wish.”

Despite his constituents’ enthusiasm, Salem State Rep John Sytek says once Massachusetts casinos open, a Salem Casino would suffer – and the legislature would be forced to make concessions:

  We saw it happen with the decline of Rockingham, we would see it here, as we would be drawn in to this perhaps too close arrangement with this operation.

To get a better sense of what a casino could really mean for Salem, we traveled 600-some miles southeast to Washington County, Pennsylvania -- home of Joe Montana, Perry Como, and a casino and racetrack called The Meadows.

The Meadows is located in the township of North Strabane. It is owned by the same company that has an option to buy Rockingham Park, and the two regions have a lot of similarities. For one, The Meadows competes with a casino in Pittsburgh, which is about as far as Boston is from Salem.

So it’s worth asking: is N. Strabane better off because of the casino?

In his brand-new station, North Strabane fire chief Mark Grimm nods toward a massive, million-dollar, neon-yellow fire truck.

When the township first got the gaming money, most of the money for that year was allocated for this truck.

Before the casino went in, North Strabane had two full time firefighters. Now, it has ten.  The fire department purchased three new trucks, and decreased its average response times from 9 minutes, to three.

Those are changes that make Salem Fire Chief Kevin Breen drool with envy.

This station is filled. There’s actually no room to put a ladder truck here at central headquarters.

Breen says Salem’s fire station is too small, too old, and seriously understaffed.

Of course, casinos bring their own costs to towns like Salem and North Strabane.  Detective Wybranowski handles North Strabane’s white collar crime investigations.

Gambling, there are people who have problems with it and they are going to do what they need to do to get their money

Like when a financial manager stole $700,000 from his employers in the health care industry a short distance from N. Strabane.

But Wybranowski  -- whose colleagues call him Wybo – says those events are rare.  For the most part, he says, the casino hasn’t brought crime rings or prostitution to N. Strabane. It’s brought fender benders.

We have an older population that visits the casino, for some reason they find it difficult to drive through the parking garages.

The detective says sure these minor events require more patrolling, but compared to those expenses, casino revenue has been a windfall for his department.

Which is how, perhaps, Millennium Gaming has won the loyalty of N. Strabane’s public safety workers.  Back at the brand-new fire station across from the N. Strabane casino, fire chief Mark Grimm shows me his station’s unofficial new patch.

It’s not our department patch, we have a station patch, obviously the dice, the roulette wheel and cards.

It doesn’t really go on their uniforms, but Grimm says the station designed it – horseshoes, lucky sevens and all -- as a thanks to the casino.   

The town of North Strabane receives about $2.7 million each year from machine and table game income. The county receives more like $8 million, which it administers via a grant-application process.  The rules determining local share are part of the state’s casino law, which passed in 2004.

County Commissioner Larry Maggi – who has traveled up to New Hampshire to testify on behalf of Millennium Gaming – says his only regret is that there hasn’t been enough property tax relief.

It has reduced property taxes but not what the people would like to see and not what I’d like to see.

Taxes have been mitigated thanks to casino money, he says, but not actually reduced.

Nevertheless, it’s hard finding any real critics of the casino in Washington County.

Fred Wilkinson is out to dinner at the Union Café with his fiancé. 

We had townships here that were struggling, struggling to make new sewer systems, water plants, treatment plants, that struggle is gone. GONE.

Since the casino went in six years ago, Washington County has spent its $8 million annual take on public parks, bridges, water and sewage infrastructure, new historical society buildings, sports equipment, and more.

But back in Salem, Representative John Sytek says those outcomes – are the result of powerful regulatory structures that New Hampshire just doesn’t have:

As I said I’m impressed by what I heard about the Washington County situation, but I don’t see that here, and I don’t see the interest here that I would like to see.  

So when the time comes, Sytek says, with Salem in mind, he’ll be voting nay on a casino. 

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