Jim Rafferty from NH Charitable Gaming gave a presentation to residents Tuesday night about the casino his company would like to build in the Berlin downtown if legislation currently before the NH House passes. They would start with 250 slot machines and 10 table games in the Albert Theater and hopefully grow into a 40,000 square foot $50 million facility with a 300 room hotel and convention center at the Rite Aid building across the street. The city would get 3 percent of revenues, or an estimated $300,000 the first year. That doesn’t include the property tax and other taxes the city would collect.
Casinos, of course, have lots of opponents. Gambling is often considered a vice, and proposed casinos in nearby states have resulted in bitter battles.
The opposition in Berlin Tuesday rallied around only one issue, however: parking.
The city would lose valuable parking spaces if there was a gaming facility in the downtown area, opponents said, and businesses on Main Street would suffer.
Councilor Lucie Remillard asked if Mr. Rafferty would consider other locations outside the downtown. Others suggested the east side or the old Converse factory aside. Mr. Rafferty said the Albert Theater was the most viable location and he hoped to make the location work.
Many of the opponents were business owners with shops on Main Street. These shops would benefit from increased traffic through the downtown, and they would benefit from visitors to Berlin, no matter the draw. People made it clear they don’t want the casino in the downtown, but they didn’t really address why. Parking as a reason is ridiculous.
What if viable businesses moved into all of the empty buildings in downtown Berlin? What would the city do for parking then? Would business owners say having all those businesses in the downtown is a detriment because of the parking challenges it creates? What other industry would move into Berlin and spend the money to level a building to create 187 parking spaces? The phase one of the casino plan would level the Rite Aid building to build a parking area — no other business would.
Traffic could be a concern; Main Street wasn’t built to handle large numbers of cars. But if too many cars in Berlin would be a significant improvement over the current problem of too few. Both Mayor David Bertrand and city manager Pat MacQueen pointed out there are ways to deal with parking issues, and that a parking problem with adequate revenue isn’t really a problem. Mr. Rafferty said if they casino is so successful there is no place to park he’ll build the city several garages.
This debate goes back to the earlier discussion about creativity. What makes people see only roadblocks instead of opportunities? What made Lorraine Leclerc see opportunity in a burned out school building while others see roadblocks when an entrepreneur approaches the city with a business idea?
Casinos have negative characteristics. In many places opponents to gambling gain enough traction that municipalities see battles between pro- and anti-gaming factions. Such a debate is important, particularly in Berlin, which has to decide what path it wants to take forward into the twenty-first century. But parking as a roadblock to economic development? What sort of draw to the downtown can there be without creating congestion? How can the city reestablish the downtown as an economic, social and cultural center without people? What depressed city shoots down a business idea because it’ll attract too many people to the area?
Where is the ingenuitive spirit to attack this challenge? Where is the dynamic community ready to move quickly to clear a path for business? What is the yoke around this city’s neck that makes everything appear overwrought and dangerous?
A luke-warm reception to gambling is understandable. But not for such a thin reason as parking.