By Jack Minch

MediaNews

LEOMINSTER -- A feasibility study for the New Hampshire Gaming Regulatory Oversight Authority considers The Cordish Companies' proposal for a slots casino on Jungle Road the biggest competition for potential Granite State gaming.

While Southern New Hampshire residents would have to drive up to 100 miles to Springfield or about 45-60 minutes into the Boston area for gaming, the Leominster facility would be in their backyard.

"The bigger threat coming from projected Massachusetts (casino) bidders would be the proposed Cordish 'slots only' project in Leominster," the report said.

New Hampshire's target market would be its own residents as well as northern Massachusetts residents who would otherwise go to Boston or Springfield, according to the report.

The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs chose not to block a revised gambling pact between Massachusetts and the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, effectively letting the tribe go ahead in its pursuit of a resort casino license in the southeast part of the state..

The tribe has asked the bureau to put 150 acres into federal trust near the junction of routes 24 and 140 in Taunton, the Boston Globe reported.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission anticipates issuing a license for a single slots parlor by March of this year, about three months later than originally scheduled.

"We are deep into the evaluation process, which is a three- or four-month process, and we are about halfway through that," Chairman Stephen Crosby said.

The most recent delay in the process is the result of negotiations for impact mitigation between slots casino developers and surrounding communities.

Communities that fail to reach an agreement with the developers can appeal to the commission, a process that can take more than 70 days.

Headlines in recent weeks have been about the commission's work with applicants for the state's three resort casino licenses, but that isn't interfering with the decision making on the slots casino applications, Crosby said.

"It's really the guts of what we will be doing this year," he said. "Evaluating and making decisions, first for the slots parlor in March then regaions A and B in May; then the southeastern state in November."

The commission is evaluating the applications in five areas including finances, community impact mitigation, the site and building design and economic development.

"The fifth is technically referred to as general overview but coloquaiallly the 'wow factor,'" Crosby said.

Each of the commissioners is leading a team of advisers and consultants analyzing each category for each applicant. They are looking at issues such as environmental impact, problem gaming and crime.

Once the evaluation teams are done with their work they will present their findings to the whole commission.

"Then the commission will take all that data and deliberate in public, weight it and ultimately make a decision," Crosby said. "It's very process-driven, data-driven and totally transparent to the public."

The finalists for the slots casino license include The Cordish Cos.'s proposed facility on Jungle Road in Leominster. The Cordish Cos. finished their final surrounding community agreement Dec. 20. with Lancaster, Bolton, Fitchburg, Lunenburg, Townsend, Westminster and Princeton, President Joe Weinberg said in a statement.

A leading advocate for the Jungle Road facility believes the New Hampshire report prepared by WhiteSand Gaming strengthens the Cordish proposal.

Cordish's argument for the slots license has included its location, which is far enough removed from proposed locations for resort casinos that it wouldn't cannibalize business.

New Hampshire is considering up to three of its own casinos including sites in Manchester, at Hinsdale Greyhound Park which closed in 2008, and at Rockingham Park, which offers harness racing in Salem, N.H.

A Cordish Cos. slots casino would attract North Central Massachusetts residents, but New Hampshire residents would likely remain in the Granite State to gamble if the state has its own casinos, according to the report.

Pat Aubuchon, interprets the report to show that The Cordish Cos. proposal is so far removed from the other slots casino proposals as well as resort casino proposals in Greater Boston, Springfield and southeastern Massachusetts that it wouldn't cannibalize any of their business.

Aubuchon is a police officer but advocates as a resident of the city.

"Leominster just sits in the middle of all of them, still, even with New Hampshire's proposals for casinos," Aubuchon said.

A slots casino is the best option for the Jungle Road site even after considering the potential for vices and crime, he said.

The district around the Route 117 and Interstate 190 interchange is already a growth area and will continue to grow whether it's a casino or retail, Aubuchon said.

If it's not a casino it's likely to be a shopping mall because the city already has technology parks that aren't filled, he said.

Arline Stith, a leading opponent to the proposed Jungle Road slots casino, was not aware of the WhiteSand Gaming report.

"We are not giving up, and we are certainly not planning to disband until we have some sort of decision," Stith said.

The casino is not saving jobs such as it would in Raynham or Plainville, where there is a heritage of gambling on dogs and horses, she said.

"We're not replacing jobs here," Stith said. "To me, again, this is not economic development, it's just taking money from Peter to pay Paul."

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