AUGUSTA, Maine — Backers of a proposal to build a resort casino in western Maine delivered more than 90,000 petition signatures to state officials on Tuesday in hopes of triggering the sixth statewide referendum on gambling since 2000.
A representative of the organization hoping to build the four-season resort and casino in the Oxford area said the latest proposal is dramatically different from an Oxford County casino ballot measure that failed at the polls in November 2008. He also forecast that passage of the ballot initiative would likely help, not hurt, Bangor’s Hollywood Slots, which is the only sanctioned gaming facility in the state.
Peter Martin, spokesman for Black Bear Entertainment LLC, said petition organizers removed most of the “flaws” that he believes helped doom the last proposal. Those flaws included lowering Maine’s gambling age to 19, creating a 10-year moratorium on other gaming facilities in the state and giving the casino president a seat on influential state boards.
Martin described the latest proposal as a privately funded stimulus package for Maine schools, with 70 percent, or about $32 million, of the annual tax revenues from the casino going to education statewide. The proposed four-season resort would create 800 to 1,000 jobs.
“It’s something that will affect every municipality in the state,” Martin said Tuesday moments after dropping off boxes of petition signatures at the Secretary of State’s Office.
Black Bear Entertainment, which was formed by a group of Maine business owners, needs 55,087 certified signatures from registered voters in Maine to place the issue on the November 2010 ballot.
The state’s voters already have rejected four gambling initiatives, including two proposed by Maine’s Indian tribes. Roughly 54 percent of voters rejected the last Oxford County resort casino proposal in November 2008.
Dennis Bailey, spokesman for the anti-gambling group CasinosNO!, dismissed Martin’s suggestions that the latest Oxford County plan is an improvement over the 2008 proposal or that it will fare better at the polls this time around.
“These things are a scam and the voters know they are a scam,” Bailey said. “I see nothing here to convince people to change their minds and vote differently than they did in the past.”
In addition to opposition from CasinosNO!, Black Bear Entertainment will likely have to confront concerns among some Bangor-area voters that an Oxford County casino would draw business away from Hollywood Slots.
Martin said the company anticipates most gamers at the Oxford casino would be from areas south of Augusta, with 50 percent likely from Massachusetts or New Hampshire.
Hollywood Slots officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Sen. Joe Perry, D-Bangor, said he does not believe a resort casino in Oxford would compete with Hollywood Slots.
“But I think it raises the issue that if we are going to have a full casino in the state, can we limit Hollywood Slots to just slots? Or should we consider opening up Hollywood Slots to table games?” Perry said.
Hollywood Slots officials have made clear their interest in offering blackjack and other table games as a way to draw additional business to the facility, which is restricted to 1,500 slot machines.
But before they could offer table games, Hollywood Slots would need legislative approval. And Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat in his final year in office, has been adamant that he would veto any legislation expanding gambling in Maine.
Bailey also pointed out that under the current language proposed by Black Bear Entertainment, Hollywood Slots would still be prohibited from offering table games even if voters approve the Oxford casino.
Martin agreed, explaining that Black Bear’s proposal would not change the existing law governing Hollywood Slots that was approved by voters in 2003.
“The reality is if this casino passes, the Legislature will award Hollywood Slots table games,” Martin said. “There is no reason they shouldn’t, and we wouldn’t oppose it.”
Perry said he would probably support expanding to table games at Hollywood Slots. But the Bangor-area senator said it is still unclear to him whether Mainers will support a resort casino ballot question authored by groups looking to build the gaming facility.