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Oxford casino passes by paper-thin margin

Posted Nov. 03, 2010, at 11:36 a.m.
Last modified Nov. 03, 2010, at 11:41 p.m.

By the narrowest of margins, Maine voters on Tuesday approved a measure to bring a resort casino to Oxford County, a decision whose implications for the state’s only other gambling facility, Bangor’s Hollywood Slots, are not known.

With 99 percent of precincts reported Wednesday, supporters stood at 50.67 percent while opponents were at 49.33 percent. The difference was less than 7,000 votes.

It was only the second time Maine voters have approved a gambling initiative and the first time they have supported a full-fledged casino.

Question 1 asked: “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?”

Rob Lally with Black Bear Entertainment, the group of Maine investors behind the $165 million casino proposal, said Wednesday morning that supporters are excited to move the project forward and create jobs.

“We predicted it would be close, maybe not this close, but there was a lot of opposition,” said Lally, who co-owns Mt. Abram Ski Resort in Greenwood. “We are hoping to roll up our sleeves to get started with site selection and permitting.”

Once a site is selected, the host community must approve the project.

The margin for Question 1 was thin all Tuesday night and both sides went to bed feeling optimistic, but supporters appeared to get a lift from voters who were looking for any way to jump-start the economy.

The referendum’s primary opponent, Citizens Against the Oxford County Casino, was a coalition financed largely by Penn National, the parent company of Hollywood Slots. Spokesman Dan Cashman said late Wednesday morning that the group was not ruling out the possibility of seeking a recount.

“Maine voters have been consistent on this issue, but the pin is moving,” Cashman said late Tuesday. “People are warming up to the idea of gambling, in part because of the economy but also because Hollywood Slots has been so successful.”

Citizens Against the Oxford County Casino is not opposed to the expansion of gambling in Maine but has maintained that Question 1 was a bad deal for Mainers and creates inequity.

“A lot of people I spoke with after they voted didn’t know about some of the provisions in this bill,” Cashman said. “I think the promise of jobs sounded really good.”

Plans call for a resort casino in Oxford County complete with table games, such as blackjack and poker. Hollywood Slots has been quietly trying to add table games through the legislative process but so far has been unsuccessful.

There is the possibility that the next Legislature could make changes to the initiative that was passed.

“We cannot predict what the Legislature would do, but we wrote what we thought was the best bill possible,” Lally said. “I hope they respect the majority of voters.”

Cashman said his group would work with the Legislature to ensure that Maine gets a fair deal going forward.

A recent study by University of Maine economist Todd Gabe that was commissioned by Black Bear Entertainment estimated 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.

Opponents, however, have said casinos are not economic development. They have been particularly critical of language in the referendum that bars any future casinos from opening within a 100-mile radius of the Oxford County facility. They also are troubled by wording that would give the Oxford County backers a 4 percent tax break if a Maine Indian tribe builds a casino elsewhere in Maine.

Those elements could be addressed by the Legislature.

Another looming question is what company would be brought in to operate the new casino.

“Penn National is a great company. We’d certainly love to talk to them,” Lally said. “But we’re not going to turn over 100 percent of management.”

In addition to Lally, Black Bear Entertainment includes: 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; and Suzanne and Rupert Grover, who own a precision metal drilling company in Norway.

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