Maine casino question a tossup

Posted Oct. 26, 2010, at 10:24 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 02, 2010, at 5:04 p.m.

Today's poll

How will you vote on Question 1 which would authorize a casino in Oxford County?

Yes
No

Supporters outspend opponents 6-to-1

Since 2000, Maine voters have gone to the polls five times to settle a referendum question involving a casino or an expansion of gambling. Only once has such a referendum passed.

That initiative in 2003 — which became Hollywood Slots Hotel & Raceway in Bangor — is right in the middle of Maine’s latest casino referendum that will be Question 1 on next week’s ballot.

Question 1 reads: “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?”

One of the major political action committees opposing Question 1 —   Citizens Against the Oxford County Casino — is financed largely by Penn National, the parent company of Hollywood Slots. The other, CasinosNO!, is not, according to its spokesman.

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Their biggest criticism of the $165 million Oxford County proposal is a perceived inequity. The new casino would have table games, such as blackjack and poker, while Hollywood Slots would be barred from adding them without voter approval. Additionally, the proposal has a provision barring any future casinos from opening within a 100-mile radius of the Oxford County facility.

“Our group is not opposed to the expansion of gambling,” said Dan Cashman of Citizens Against the Oxford County Casino. “This proposal is clearly about limiting competition for them.”

On the other side, Black Bear Entertainment, the group of Maine investors behind the latest casino effort, often mentions Hollywood Slots as an example of what gambling can do.

“Hollywood Slots has proven that [casinos] can create jobs and revenue for the state,” said Rob Lally, co-owner of Mount Abram Ski Resort in Greenwood and one of Black Bear Entertainment’s investors.

As unemployment remains high and the economy struggles to rebound, people who don’t necessarily support casinos could vote for Question 1 this year simply because it will create jobs. Oxford County, in particular, has been hit hard by the recession, although all 16 counties in Maine get to decide the casino initiative’s fate.

Recent polls suggest the referendum is a tossup.

A poll conducted last week by Pan Atlantic SMS Group showed 49 percent of voters supporting the initiative while 45 percent were opposed. An earlier poll by Critical Insights showed casino supporters holding a 52-39 advantage.

With less than a week to go before Election Day, spending has increased as well. Supporters of a casino in Oxford County are outspending opponents 6-to-1, according to the most recent filings with the Maine Ethics Commission.

Reports filed Oct. 22 show Maine Taxpayers Taking Charge had spent $2.9 million so far.

The two major PACs opposing the casino initiative, CasinosNO! and Citizens Against the Oxford County Casino, had raised about $560,000 and spent about $480,000 as of Oct. 22.

Lally defended the large amount of money raised by Maine Taxpayers Taking Charge.

“If you look at what has happened in the past, groups come in at the last minute and spend huge amounts of money. We know they are going to come on strong,” he said. “We’re going to do what it takes to get to the finish. If voters look at where the information is coming from, they are going to see through what Penn National is trying to do.”

Both sides are spending much of their money on television advertising.

Supporters are using the results of a recent study by University of Maine economist Todd Gabe, which was commissioned by Black Bear Entertainment. Gabe estimated that the casino could generate $126.7 million in revenue annually and nearly $61 million in taxes to the state. He also said visitors would spend an additional $51.3 million at area restaurants and hotels.

Nearly 900 full- and part-time employees would be needed for the casino alone. The resort’s hotel, restaurants and conference center would need still more workers.

Dennis Bailey of CasinosNO!, however, said gambling is not economic development and the Oxford County casino would take away as many jobs as it creates. Bailey also derided the heavy spending by proponents.

“They obviously expect a big payoff for themselves if they’re willing to gamble $4 million of their own money on this casino scheme,” he said. “But we still don’t know who will actually be running the casino or where it will be located.”

History is not exactly on Black Bear Entertainment’s side.

Just two years ago, voters rejected by a 55-45 margin a similar referendum calling for a $180 million resort and casino in Oxford County. That bill had a few problematic provisions, including allowing people younger than 21 to gamble and to work in the casino, placing a 10-year moratorium on competing casinos and extending credit to gamblers.

This time, those provisions have been addressed, proponents say, but it’s different in another way as well.

“What’s unique about this proposal is that it’s all Maine business groups trying to bring jobs to western Maine. There are no special interests, no out-of-state money,” Lally said.

Black Bear Entertainment is made up of Jim Boldebook, owner of Creative Broadcast Concepts 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 and son, Gary; Suzanne and Rupert Grover, who own a precision metal drilling company in Norway; and Lally.

Despite the local investors and the new language of the referendum, some opponents remain troubled by the wording.

“They have corrected some flaws, but there are still flaws,” Cashman said, referring to the provision that would not allow any competing casinos within a 100-mile radius. “I see this as stifling jobs. It will create jobs in the short term, but what about the long term? There will be no opportunities for growth if this passes.”

Mike Mahoney, treasurer of the Citizens Against the Oxford County Casino, said he’s troubled by wording in the proposal that would give the Oxford County backers a 4 percent tax break if a Maine Indian tribe builds a casino.

The Passamaquoddy tribes of Washington County and the Penobscot Indian Nation have vocal interests in casinos but have been unsuccessful in trying to expand gambling.

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