Casino question at polls yet again

Posted Sept. 19, 2010, at 7:20 p.m.
This is a conceptual rendering of the proposed casino to be built in Oxford, Maine, if approved by voters in the November election. (AP Photo/Barton and Gingold)
This is a conceptual rendering of the proposed casino to be built in Oxford, Maine, if approved by voters in the November election. (AP Photo/Barton and Gingold)

OXFORD, Maine — Backers of a proposed $165 million casino and resort in western Maine are betting the sour economy and high jobless rate will spur voters to approve a project they say will create well over 1,000 jobs and pump tens of millions of dollars into the economy.

Voters two years ago rejected by a ratio of 55-45 a similar referendum calling for a $180 million resort and casino in this town of about 4,000 an hour north of Portland.

This time around, there’s a new set of homegrown investors who are confident that voters will give the OK for Maine’s first casino with black jack, craps and other table games, in addition to slot machines.

People are hungry for jobs and economic opportunity, said Jim Boldebook, one of the investors in Black Bear Entertainment LLC, which would own the casino. The unemployment rate in Oxford County was 10.6 percent in July, much higher than the 7.9 percent unadjusted statewide rate.

“When you cross into Maine you see that big sign that says, ‘Maine, the way life should be,”’ Boldebook said. “Well, I have news for you. When you’ve got 70 percent of the people in western Maine who are on either Medicare or Medicaid, when you’ve got 22 percent of the people living on some kind of general assistance, I ask the question, ‘Is that the way life should be?”’

Maine is home to Hollywood Slots in Bangor, which has 1,000 slot machines but no table games, which was made possible through a statewide referendum that voters approved in 2003.

But Mainers have rejected three other referendums since 2003 calling for casinos with slot machines, table games, hotels, restaurants and other amenities. There’s no reason to think the outcome will be different this year, said Dennis Bailey, executive director of CasinosNo!

“It’s not economic development. It takes as many jobs out of the economy as it will add, and probably more,” Bailey said. “We aren’t going to be the next Foxwoods. We aren’t going to be the next Atlantic City, and who would want to be? It’ll just take money away from local economies and regional economies and put it into the pockets of slick casino operators.”

Question 1 on the Nov. 2 ballot asks: “Do you want to allow a casino with table games and slot machines at a single site in Oxford County, subject to local approval, with part of the profits going to specific state, local and tribal programs?”

Black Bear Entertainment is composed of Boldebook, the owner of Creative Broadcast Concepts ad agency in Biddeford; Steve Barber, former president and CEO of Barber Foods in Portland, and his wife; Bob Bahre, former owner of Oxford Plains Speedway and the founder of the New Hampshire International Speedway, and his business partner son, Gary; Rob Lalley, co-owner of the Mt. Abram ski resort in Greenwood; and Suzanne and Rupert Grover, who own a precision metal drilling company in Norway.

As in past elections, talk of a gambling hall has ignited strong feelings.

The idea of a casino just a few miles from her Otisfield home has prompted Zizi Vlaun to organize a political action committee to oppose the plan. Black Bear Entertainment says it has several sites under consideration for the casino on or near Route 26, but it won’t divulge the exact locations.

If a casino comes to town, area restaurants will close, retail sales will go down, unemployment will go up, drunken driving will increase, domestic abuse will rise, Vlaun said. She quotes billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who once called gambling a “tax on ignorance.”

“This will not solve our problems,” Vlaun said. “It will create problems. It’s a short-term fix for bad long-term problems.”

Another coalition that includes Pennsylvania-based Penn National Gaming Inc., the owner of Hollywood Slots, has formed a political action committee in opposition to the referendum.

But many people along Route 26 will tell you most folks in this neck of the woods want a casino for the jobs.

A study by a University of Maine economics professor estimated that the gambling operations alone would require 879 full- and part-time employees, and the resort with its hotel, restaurants and conference center would need still more workers. The study was commissioned by Black Bear Entertainment.

The casino and resort would generate $126.7 million in gambling revenues and at least $60.9 million in taxes for the state each year, and casino visitors would spend $51.3 million in area restaurants and lodging facilities, the study said.

Evan Thurlow, 85, is no gambler, but he likes those numbers.

The region has been hurt in recent times by the loss of housing manufacturers, a woolen mill, wood-products plants and other businesses, he said.

Busloads of Mainers with wallets full of money regularly travel to the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut to try their hand at gambling, he said.

“If they’re going to gamble, the money might as well stay here in the state,” Thurlow said as he packed green peppers into cardboard boxes at the Crestholm Farm Stand.

The Oxford Board of Selectmen has given its unanimous endorsement to the project. But it may be a tougher sell elsewhere. Voters in 12 of Maine’s 16 counties rejected the 2008 casino proposal.

“I have a feeling it’ll pass this time,” said Chairman Floyd Thayer. “People are finally opening their eyes that we need jobs.”

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