Casino group seeks new referendum

Posted Oct. 15, 2009, at 10:04 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Leaders of a new group that’s launching a new effort to win approval for a casino in western Maine are ready to begin collecting signatures to force a referendum next year.

Black Bear Entertainment LLC hopes to collect 80,000 signatures before Feb. 1. That would be more than enough to ensure that the casino goes to a vote in November 2010, spokesman Peter Martin said.

The group sought to distance itself from a previous attempt to develop a casino in Oxford County. That proposal, which went down in defeat last November after even its supporters acknowledged its flaws, would have lowered the age for casino gambling to 19, placed a 10-year moratorium on competing casinos and put the casino president on a number of boards that benefit from casino revenues.

The new proposal eliminates those problems, Martin said, while dedicating 32 percent of slot proceeds to education and giving a shot to the economy of Oxford County, which has Maine’s second-highest unemployment rate.

The anti-gambling group Casinos NO! said Mainers already rejected a casino in Oxford County, and they will do it again.

“They’re out to prove Einstein’s definition of insanity. They keep trying to do the same thing and expect a different result,” spokesman Dennis Bailey said. “We’ve debated this over and over again. There’s no reason to think Maine people have changed their minds. We’ve settled the debate.”

The dream of casino gambling has been alive since 2003, when the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Indian tribes promoted a $650 million casino in Sanford. That measure was defeated at the polls, but those same voters gave their approval for a racetrack casino. That led to Bangor’s Hollywood Slots complex.

Since then, efforts to expand gambling have failed. Gov. John Baldacci vetoed a Passamaquoddy-backed bill to create a racino in Washington County, and the Maine Legislature rejected a Penobscot-backed bill to allow slot machines on Indian Island. Then voters rejected the Oxford County casino last year.

As with the last campaign, casino supporters say the Oxford County and state economies would benefit from the proposal, which would create nearly 1,000 jobs.

This time, there’s a new group led by Stephen Barber, former president of Barber Foods. Partners and investors are Jim Boldebrook, founder of Creative Broadcast Concepts, an advertising firm in Biddeford; Robert Lally Jr., a co-owner of Mount Abram ski resort; and Rupert and Suzanne Grover, founders of a specialty drilling company based in Oxford County.

During a news conference, the group sought to play up the resort aspect of the development.

“This isn’t a casino that happens to have a resort,” Martin told reporters. “This is a four-season resort that happens to have a casino.”

But gambling revenue is the driving force.

The proposal calls for an overall gambling taxation rate of roughly 42 percent; Slots would be taxed at 46 percent and table games at 16 percent, Martin said.

Education would be the biggest beneficiary of gambling proceeds, Martin said. As an example, 25 percent of slot machine proceeds would go to funding for the state’s Essential Program Services model, 4 percent would go to University of Maine scholarships and 3 percent would go to community colleges.

Two tribes — the Passamaquoddies and Penobscots — thwarted in attempts to build a casino or install slot machines would get 4 percent. One percent of revenues would go to the Maine Dairy Farm Stabilization Fund. The town, county and Gambling Control Board also would get a cut.

Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said Thursday that he had not been approached by the group. He said he had his doubts but was willing to talk. “Really, we’re always kind of skeptical of getting involved in these things because you never know what the motive is,” Francis said.

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