Future of Oxford casino in Legislature’s hands

Posted Nov. 15, 2010, at 4:48 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 16, 2010, at 11:15 p.m.
Bangor Daily News photo illustration
Bangor Daily News photo illustration
A conceptual rendering of the proposed casino for Oxford County.
AP /Barton and Gingold
A conceptual rendering of the proposed casino for Oxford County.
John Osborne
John Osborne

Today's poll

Should Hollywood Slots be
allowed to have table games?

Yes
No

Although a recount is still pending, the future of an Oxford County casino and its potential impact on Bangor’s Hollywood Slots is expected to fall into the hands of the newly elected Legislature.

Representatives of Black Bear Entertainment, the group of southern and western Maine investors behind the casino, have maintained that the Legislature should respect voters and approve the law as it is written.

Opponents of Question 1, led by Hollywood Slots, now hope to persuade lawmakers to address some problematic provisions of the law. Specifically, Hollywood Slots wants to ensure that it will be able to add table games to its operation without going back out to a statewide referendum.

One thing is almost certain, according to lawmakers: The casino bill that passed by fewer than 6,000 votes earlier this month likely will look different when the Legislature is done with it.

CasinosNo! and Oxford Hills No on 1, two groups opposed to the initiative, requested a recount of Question 1 last week. That process is expected to take about a month, but Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap has said the outcome is unlikely to change.

Dan Cashman, spokesman for the Citizens Against the Oxford County Casino, said his group was not interested in a recount but would work closely with the Legislature to ensure that the final bill is fair.

The passage of Question 1 allows Black Bear Entertainment to build a resort casino in Oxford County featuring slot machines and table games.

Late last week, the group selected a site in the town of Oxford. Rob Lally, co-owner of Mt. Abram Ski Resort in Greenwood, said casino investors also are set to begin interviewing firms to manage the casino once it is built.

As for the legislative process, Lally said he and others hope to convince lawmakers that the bill passed by voters, which is 16 pages long, does not need to be rewritten.

“We honestly believe we wrote a very strong bill,” he said. “We can’t predict what will happen in Augusta, but we’re willing to sit down with anyone.”

Hollywood Slots General Manager John Osborne said the passage of Question 1 changes nothing in the short term for his facility, which continues to experience year-over-year growth.

“The real question on fairness is how soon Hollywood Slots will receive approval to conduct table games and offer a complete gaming experience to customers,” he said. “Black Bear Entertainment has stated that they are in favor of table games at Hollywood Slots.”

Lally agreed that Black Bear Entertainment does not oppose any expansion efforts by Hollywood Slots, but he also said, “It’s not up to us. Voters should decide.”

Assuming the recount does not change the outcome, the bill passed by voters is likely to first go to the Legislature’s Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee in January, according to longtime lawmaker Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham. He expects the issue to generate significant debate.

“Our charge is not to change the core of what was passed, but we also have a responsibility to do what’s right for Maine. It’s a delicate balance.”

Pamela Jabar Trinward, D-Waterville, outgoing chairwoman of the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, agreed that the Legislature has broad latitude to alter the bill but cannot change its intent.

Among the items in the law that are most likely to be debated are:

ä Table games. The Oxford County casino would have them; Bangor does not. The Legislature can alter the existing bill to allow table games in Bangor, create new legislation or do nothing and force Hollywood Slots to address table games through referendum.

ä Competing gambling facilities. Language in the bill passed by voters reads: “A casino operator license or slot machine operator license may not be issued under this chapter to operate any casino or slot machine facility located within 100 miles of a licensed casino or slot machine facility.”

As the crow flies, Hollywood Slots is within 100 miles of the site proposed for the Oxford County casino, which suggests that the provision applies only to future casinos or slot facilities, and not Hollywood Slots. However, the language seems to imply that if Hollywood Slots becomes a casino (i.e., adds table games) it would be in violation of the 100-mile provision.

ä Tax structure. The Oxford County bill has a different tax formula than Hollywood Slots and could pay the state less in taxes. Similarly, if Hollywood Slots is successful in adding table games, would they be subject to the same tax formula proposed for Oxford County?

There are precedents for tweaks to referendums passed by voters. In 2003, when voters approved the referendum that paved the way for Hollywood Slots, the bill that passed looked substantially different once the Legislature got done with it. Last November, when voters approved an expansion of Maine’s medical marijuana laws, the Legislature spent many months ironing out details.

Dan Demerritt, spokesman for Gov.-elect Paul LePage, said the governor-elect likely would allow the Legislature and local delegations to handle any changes to the law. LePage opposed Question 1, but Demerritt said the soon-to-be governor would honor the will of the people.

Hollywood Slots’ host community, the city of Bangor, has a vested interest in its success. The city’s share of proceeds from the Bangor facility is earmarked to help fund a new arena. In the past, Bangor has hired legal counsel to represent its gaming interests in Augusta. It’s unclear if the city will do that this time around.

It’s not just the proposed Oxford County casino that could affect business in Bangor. Local voters in Biddeford on Election Day approved a racetrack casino with slot machines, the same type of facility built by Penn National in Bangor. However, Biddeford is within 100 miles of Oxford County. Any expansion of gambling in Biddeford also would need a change in state law, either through the Legislature or by statewide referendum.

Osborne with Hollywood Slots said fairness, not competition, is his biggest concern.

“If the Legislature is agreeable to leveling the playing field, their opening would not affect us,” Osborne said of the Oxford County casino.

Hollywood Slots has not provided demographic information on customers, but the facility has advertised in southern Maine and beyond.

Robert Welch, executive director of the state’s Gambling Control Board, said the pending creation of a new casino would create more work for him, although some Oxford County proceeds would allow his department to add more staff.

“Under the proposed legislation, regulation will all come under us,” he said. “I’m confident because of our background in slot machines, but table games will be new.”

The Gambling Control Board will have its first discussion of the proposed Oxford County casino at its meeting Wednesday.

AP PHOTO/BARTON AND GINGOLD

A conceptual rendering of the proposed casino for Oxford County.

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