Oxford casino backers seek support Down East

Posted April 25, 2010, at 8:41 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — Peter Martin, the spokesman for Black Bear Entertainment, took a whirlwind tour through Washington County last week, courting businesspeople in Calais and Machias to back his company’s efforts to have a casino in Oxford County.

Martin said that the effort in western Maine will have a huge and possibly final impact on the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s efforts to site a casino Down East — a casino that he said could funnel more than $2 million to the tribe and greatly boost the area’s economic picture.

“We believe that if Oxford County fails, it will be game over for Washington County,” Martin said. “However, if we win, we believe the Passamaquoddy Tribe will be granted permission for a casino at the next legislative session. Our win is their win.”

Martin said this fall’s vote will “be the pivotal point in gaming in Maine for many years.”

The Passamaquoddy Tribe has a long history of trying to operate a Washington County casino.

Maine voters defeated a referendum proposal in 2003 by the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes for a $650 million casino in Sanford in southern Maine.

In 2008, Maine voters rejected a plan by the Passamaquoddy Tribe to build a casino in Calais, and last year they shot down a proposal for a casino in Oxford County.

But after petitioning the Legislature, the Oxford County proposal will be on this fall’s referendum ballot. An attempt by the tribe to also be on the ballot was rejected by the Legislature last month.

Martin said Black Bear is concerned that would cause a backlash of resentment in Washington County.

“Many people are saying that ‘if we can’t have ours, they can’t have theirs,’ creating another regional divide between different parts of the state,” Martin said. “We support the Passamaquoddy Tribe wanting to bring the development to Washington County.”

“I think Peter Martin is a bit desperate,” Dennis Bailey, with the anti-gambling group CasinosNO!, said Sunday. “I think there is a greater danger that if Oxford County passes, Washington County will never get a casino. Voters will accept a certain amount of gambling but they are not going to want a casino on every street corner.”

Bailey said Martin should be afraid of a backlash from Washington County voters.

“He’s right to be worried,” Bailey said.

Martin said the backers of Black Bear’s plan were open to the competing proposal in eastern Maine and the addition of table games at the existing Hollywood Slots racetrack-casino in Bangor.

Martin said Black Bear Entertainment has made its development director available to the tribe to assist in discussions now about the viability of a Down East racino as well as ways to put a development package together.

It is critical, he said, that Oxford County win the popular vote this fall.

“If Oxford loses next November, the Legislature will close the door on gaming expansion for years to come, dashing any hopes of a Washington County gaming development,” he said.

“We want to gain the support of not only Passamaquoddy Tribe but the entire Washington County region,” he said.

But putting aside the future implications for a Down East racino, Martin said there are other reasons Washington County should support the referendum.

If an Oxford County racino became reality, Martin said, almost $25 million could boost Maine’s educational funding. An additional $7 million a year could go toward the University of Maine and the community college system in the form of scholarships.

“Washington County has both a community college and a University of Maine campus,” Martin said. “So as you can see the passage of the Oxford referendum is not just about Oxford. Its passage will have benefits for every county in Maine.”

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