A proposal to bring a resort casino to southern Maine teetered on a razor-thin margin Wednesday morning with more than three-quarters of Maine’s precincts reporting and neither side ready to claim victory.
As of 3 a.m., with 529 of 596 precincts reporting, 50.4 percent of voters favored Question 1, while 49.7 percent were opposed. The margin was less than 4,000 votes.
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?”
Both sides were prepared for a long night and that’s exactly what they got.
“It’s pretty exciting, but it most certainly is a nail-biter,” said Rob Lally with the group Maine Taxpayers Taking Charge and one of the Maine investors behind the $165 million casino proposal. “This has been a tough campaign. We had it coming at us from both sides. If nothing else, we’ve shown people that we’re committed to this project.”
The referendum’s primary opponent, Citizens Against the Oxford County Casino, is a coalition financed largely by Penn National, the parent company of Hollywood Slots, a racino in Bangor.
“This is what we expected,” said Dan Cashman, representing the opposition group. “Maine voters have been consistent on this issue, but the pin is moving. People are warming up to the idea of gambling, in part because of the economy but also because Hollywood Slots has been so successful.”
Added Dennis Bailey of CasinosNo!, which has been around for several years and has opposed all gambling ballot questions: “It’s going to be very close. The other side has dumped a lot of money in the last few days.”
Several recent polls taken before the election showed Question 1 supporters holding a slight edge. Supporters of a casino in Oxford County outspent opponents approximately 6-to-1, according to the late-October filings with the Maine Ethics Commission.
Many voters across the state were driven to the polls largely by the wide-open gubernatorial race, but some also had strong feelings about the casino initiative.
Page Stevens, 36, of Bangor said she was most interested in Question 1 but she actually changed her vote at the last minute.
“At first I was going to vote no, because we haven’t allowed tribes to have casinos,” she said. “But then I saw that some of the proceeds for this casino would benefit the tribes.”
Lorri Cronkite of Pittsfield said she strongly opposes the casino question.
“They capitalize on the misery of other people,” she said. “When Bangor started they said there would never be table games in Maine. What happened to that?”
Mainers have now gone to the polls six times in the last decade to settle a referendum question involving a casino or an expansion of gambling.
The only initiative that passed was in 2003, which allowed for the creation of a slots parlor adjacent to an affiliated racetrack. That proposal became Hollywood Slots Hotel & Raceway in Bangor, still the state’s only gambling facility.
Black Bear Entertainment, the group of Maine investors behind the latest initiative, wants to build a $165 million resort casino in Oxford complete with table games, such as blackjack and poker.
The group 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, co-owner of Mt. Abram ski resort.
As the economy struggles to rebound and unemployment remains high, Mainers are looking for any measure of economic development.
A recent study by University of Maine economist Todd Gabe that was commissioned by Black Bear Entertainment estimated that the casino could generate $126.7 million in revenue annually and nearly $61 million in taxes to the state. Gabe 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 even more workers.
“We’re most excited to be able to put people to work to get this thing started,” Lally said late Tuesday. “If we win, my first calls tomorrow are to some Maine businesses to help consult on-site selection. That’s not something we plan to take lightly. We want to make sure everyone’s OK with this.”
Opponents, however, have said casinos are not economic development. They have been particularly critical of language in the proposal that bars any future casinos from opening within a 100-mile radius of the Oxford County facility. They also are 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.
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 also had 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.