Keene zoning amendment would keep casinos out of downtown

NH Business Review
Keene zoning amendment would keep casinos out of downtown
Keene Planning Board to meet Nov. 13 to discuss locations for charitable gaming facilities

A zoning amendment backed by Mayor George Hansel would keep casinos out of Keene’s downtown core, limiting them to specific zoning districts of the city.

The proposed ordinance, slated to go before the Keene Planning Board and the City Council’s Planning, Licenses and Development Committee in a joint meeting Nov. 13, defines charitable gaming facilities in the city’s land development code and would restrict them to the downtown growth and commerce districts.

According to a zoning map of Keene, the downtown growth district includes areas near the city’s spine, but is essentially set back from the primary stretch of retailers and eateries on Main Street, and includes sections of West Street, Gilbo Avenue and Emerald Street to the west, and Community Way and a portion of Water Street to the east. A section of Main Street between Davis Street to the north and Winchester Street to the south is also part of the downtown growth district.

According to Keene’s Senior Planner Mari Brunner, charitable gaming facilities currently fall under the definition of indoor recreation/entertainment facilities, which typically refers to movie theaters, bowling alleys or golf simulators.

These kinds of structures are permitted in several zoning districts, including the downtown core, which constitutes Main Street from Central Square down to Emerald Street and Eagle Court, as well as parts of connecting streets, such as Court, Washington, West and Emerald.

“Places that offer gambling and other types of charitable gaming … we currently don’t know where to categorize them, and they’re currently shoehorned into that indoor recreation facility definition,” she said. “We’re trying to separate them because [indoor recreational facilities] are allowed in lots of districts that might not be compatible for a charitable gaming facility.”

Currently Keene has just one charitable gaming facility, Wonder Casino at 172 Emerald St. It is in the downtown growth district.

Brunner added that city staff were concerned that a casino on Main Street might absorb much of the public parking that downtown businesses share and rely on.

And while Hansel noted there are presently no proposals for charitable casinos downtown, he worries people visiting a casino may stay there for extended periods of time, taking up parking spaces in the process.

“So right now we’ve seen uses in downtown that mostly are made up of dining, entertainment like shows, and retail,” he said. “All of those uses work in harmony with our parking program to move folks along and out of parking spots relatively regularly. A discussion needs to be had whether [a casino] would work in that same harmony.”

Brunner said the ordinance was spurred by a letter Hansel wrote, in which he requests the city council consider restricting charitable gaming facilities from being allowed in the downtown core zoning district.

“These facilities have been growing in popularity in New Hampshire as a result of enabling legislation at the state level,” the Sept. 29 letter states. “This type of use certainly has a place in our community, but may not be appropriate for the downtown core.”

In June, NH Gov. Chris Sununu signed a bill that increases the amount people can spend at these facilities. The legislation allows people to spend up to $50 per wager in a game of chance, up from the previous $10 limit.

While traditional casinos are outlawed in the Granite State, New Hampshire allows machine-based or table-based games provided that facilities give 35% of revenues to nonprofits.

NH Public Radio reported in August that the state’s casino industry is experiencing significant growth, with casinos in 2022 having grossed $54 million, a $10 million increase from 2021.

Hansel said he’s concerned this growing popularity may lead to more casinos in Keene, with developers lured by the city’s lack of specific zoning laws on gambling establishments.

“Multiple folks have been probing around about where they can go in Keene,” he said. “I think the council really needs to have a conversation on whether that use is consistent with other uses downtown.”