AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers heard testimony Wednesday on how the state should measure the distance between gambling facilities as supporters of an Oxford County resort casino attempt to fix an oversight they fear could delay or even sink their project.
Under the 2003 ballot initiative that paved the way for slot machines in Maine, gambling facilities must be separated by at least 100 miles. But in the wake of last fall’s voter approval of an Oxford casino, questions have arisen over how to calculate that distance: in road miles or as a straight line between the two points?
The proposed site of the four-season resort casino is more than 100 miles from Hollywood Slots in Bangor if you’re measuring with the car odometer. But measuring “as the crow flies,” Oxford is roughly 94 miles from Bangor.
Anticipating a potentially lengthy court battle over the issue, backers of the Oxford project are asking lawmakers to clarify the issue once and for all.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Debra Plowman, LD 677, states that the Maine Gambling Control Board would calculate distances “by measuring along the most commonly used roadway, as determined by the Department of Transportation.”
Plowman, R-Hampden, told fellow members of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Wednesday that failure to fix the language could endanger the entire Oxford project, more than 1,000 jobs and the will of more than 300,000 voters.
“The key question is not how far apart the facilities are as the crow flies but what their location is in relation to potential gambling customers,” she said. “The folks that will be traveling to Maine’s gambling facilities travel along roadways in cars and not in straight lines. And I’ve also heard that crows don’t gamble.”
Attorneys for the casino developer, Black Bear Entertainment, said no other locations in Oxford County meet the 100-mile linear standard and all other site requirements. Black Bear representatives also said other distances pertaining to harness racing in Maine are measured in road miles.
And while the Gambling Control Board has signaled it is willing to use road miles for the Oxford project, the existing law’s ambiguity could lead to legal challenges, they warned.
“The board is not typically in the position of interpreting laws or making policy decisions, and they shouldn’t be in the position of doing that now,” said attorney Melissa Reynolds O’Dea.
But the project’s critics insist that that Black Bear should have addressed the issue before getting to this point.
Mary Taylor, a resident of Oxford, said it is disingenuous of Black Bear to be urging the Legislature to change the 100-mile provision in statute after telling lawmakers that they should resist the urge to change any of the language of the referendum question.
“Black Bear Entertainment cannot have it both ways,” Taylor said.
The debate over how to interpret the 100-mile distance relative to the Oxford proposal has also become tangled with the fate of another proposal for slots facilities in Biddeford and Calais.
The 2003 ballot initiative would have authorized slot machines in both Bangor and Scarborough because both cities already had harness racing tracks. But Scarborough residents have rejected proposals for a local racino, so the owners of Scarborough Downs are hoping to reopen — with slot machines — in Biddeford.
Backers of the Biddeford project have filed petition signatures to trigger a statewide vote to allow racinos iin both Biddeford and Calais at a facility to be operated by the Passamaquoddy Tribe. That ballot initiative also would remove the 100-mile restriction from the law.
On Wednesday, representatives of the Biddeford Downs project endorsed the legislation, and Black Bear representatives said nothing in the bill would change the Biddeford/Calais referendum.
But some in the harness racing community remained concerned that the Oxford casino could thwart the Biddeford project because the two towns are located within 100 miles of each other, regardless of how the distance is calculated.
Denise McNitt, a veterinarian from Cumberland who owns dozens of horses and is heavily involved in harness racing in Maine and Delaware, said the 100-mile provision should be removed altogether, thereby allowing all gambling proposals to be measured on their own merits.
Harness racing supports 1,700 jobs in Maine, she said, but the industry could disappear if the second racino is not built.
“If harness racing doesn’t have equity … and we lose the jobs that we have, have we really gained anything by adding 500 new jobs [in Oxford] when we lose 1,700? I think not,” McNitt said.