Passamaquoddy tout gaming plan

Posted March 11, 2010, at 8:35 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Leaders of the Passamaquoddy Tribe sketched out their proposal Thursday for a November ballot question that would seek voter approval for gambling facilities in eastern and western Maine as well as table games at Hollywood Slots in Bangor.

The Passamaquoddy plan is intended to offer voters an alternative to a proposal — already slated to appear on the November ballot — for a four-season resort casino in Oxford County. If approved by the Legislature, the tribe’s plan could dramatically change this fall’s political debate over whether to expand gambling in Maine.

“We believe strongly that this is about fairness for Washington County and for the people of the Passamaquoddy Tribe,” said Gov. Bill Nicholas of the tribe’s Indian Township reservation.

Earlier this winter, Maine-based Black Bear Entertainment LLC filed more than 100,000 petition signatures with election officials in support of a ballot question on the Oxford County casino.

Under the state’s citizen initiative process, the Legislature can approve the issue without sending it to the voters. But Gov. John Baldacci has vowed to veto any effort to expand gaming in Maine, all but ensuring that the Oxford County issue will appear on the November ballot.

On Thursday, Black Bear representatives and other backers of the Oxford proposal urged the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee to approve the measure despite the inevitable veto.

The project’s architects forecast the resort casino — which will include a hotel, convention center, restaurant, slot machines and table games such as poker — would create nearly 1,000 well-paying jobs in the region, plus up to 800 construction jobs.

The resort casino is also forecast to generate tens of millions of dollars annually in tax payments to the state, including $25 million or more every year for kindergarten through 12th grade programs.

“We need to do something in Western Maine to bring the jobs back,” said Rupert Grover, a Black Bear Entertainment investor who runs a specialized drilling company in Oxford County.

“This is not a choice between a casino and another type of economic development,” said Sen. David Hastings, a Fryeburg Republican whose district has among the state’s highest unemployment rate. “This is the only choice we have, and I think we need to pursue it.”

In an effort to gain the support of Maine’s American Indian communities, Black Bear has proposed directing 4 percent of the casino revenues to the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes.

“We strongly feel that if we were successful with this project they should share in that success,” said Peter Martin, spokesman for Black Bear Entertainment.

But Nicholas and other tribal leaders indicated Thursday that they want more than simply a cut of the revenue. They also want a spot on the ballot this November.

Rep. Donald Soctomah, the Passamaquoddy tribal representative to the Legislature, pointed out that tribes have been attempting to gain authorization for a gaming facility for 18 years. In the meantime, voters approved a slots facility in Bangor while the economic conditions and job prospects in Washington County have contin-ued to decline.

“It’s time for Washington County and the tribe to be treated fairly on this issue of economic development,” Soctomah said. “It’s not fair for the rest of the state to move ahead and leave Washington County behind.”

Under the tribal proposal, which is still being developed, the Legislature would use its authority to approve a “competing measure” to appear alongside the Oxford County ballot question.

Soctomah said the tribal proposal would seek voter authorization for both the Black Bear project and a Passamaquoddy racing casino. It also would seek authorization for poker and other table games at Hollywood Slots in Bangor.

Supporters described the competing measure as positive for all parties because it would pick up support from voters throughout the state rather than in one particular area.

“It would be extraordinarily painful for the people I represent to see yet another [gaming] facility move forward elsewhere when we still haven’t achieved that long sought after goal,” said Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry.

Others criticized provisions in Black Bear’s bill that would prohibit new gambling facilities within 100 miles of Oxford. Representatives from Hollywood Slots also oppose provisions that would force the company to obtain voter approval for table games and that would change the formula for divvying up tax revenues from the casino.

“This places us at a great competitive disadvantage,” John Osborne, general manager at Hollywood Slots, told committee members. Osborne said Penn National Gaming Inc., the company that owns Hollywood Slots, is “open to all options” on the competing measure.

The Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold a work session on the Oxford County bill and the anticipated competing measure next Wednesday.

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