GUEST COLUMN

Incremental approach to gaming has served Maine well

Posted June 08, 2011, at 7:12 p.m.

The people of Maine have been appropriately cautious when it comes to gaming, and thus far that caution has been rewarded with an industry occupying a sensible place in our economy.

Voters have authorized gaming in only two specific locations, and notably have turned down more proposals than they have approved over the past decade or so.

It is for this reason that the Legislature and governor should not rush to flood the state with new gaming facilities as is now being contemplated in Augusta. If some would have their way, Maine would go from a single active gaming venue in Bangor and a second pending in Oxford County to five such facilities, including operations in Biddeford, Lewiston and Washington County.

The rationale for doing this is that voters approved a casino for Oxford County in the last election, therefore the debate over the role of gaming in Maine is settled.

But while the Oxford County proposal won approval fair and square, it did so by the thinnest of margins. There is no mandate for opening Maine to multiple gaming operations.

What makes the most sense in terms of democratic values and fairness is for each of the proposed gaming facilities to stand on their own as separate, statewide referendums.

This is what the backers of the Hollywood Slots gaming facility in Bangor had to do. They made their case to the entire state and won the people’s endorsement. It is what the supporters of a casino in Oxford had to do as well.

But beyond these arguments of basic fairness, there is an important and substantive policy issue at stake here.

Maine has greatly benefited from an incremental approach to gaming, and that is no more evident than here in Bangor. Penn National Gaming, the operator of Hollywood Slots, has had to prove itself to this community and the state. And it has passed every test on its journey to being a well-run facility deserving of the right to expand into simulcast wagering and table games.

Here in Bangor we are about to reap an enormous benefit from Hollywood Slots in the form of a new arena and convention center funded through the taxes and fees paid by that facility.

As someone who has witnessed the development and growth of Maine’s first gaming operation, I can say that in Bangor we got it right. We have a facility that is appropriate for the community and the revenues derived from it are being channeled in a smart way.

That didn’t happen amid a gold-rush mentality. Rather, it was the result of thoughtful process that was appropriately tested first in a citywide vote, then among all the voters in Maine.

As the chair of Bangor’s leading business advocacy organization’s board of directors, one could rightly conclude that my concern is that other gaming facilities in Maine would take business from the one here.

But such parochialism is not at issue. The real question is whether Maine is going to continue to be smart about gaming.

Back in 2003 when the state debated both the Hollywood Slots proposal and another casino proposed for southern Maine, there was a lot of talk about what gaming might do to the Maine brand.

It was polarizing rhetoric, but it also had substance. We have something special here in Maine. People from around the world recognize this state as a special place to visit.

In that 2003 vote, Mainers rejected an ambitious, large-scale casino, but embraced the Hollywood Slots model. And since then, Penn National has demonstrated that gaming can exist here without damaging our state’s brand.

That does not mean the voters were wrong in 2003. What they said then, and seem to keep saying over time, is that under the right circumstances, gaming has a place in Maine.

That’s the message that the Legislature and governor should heed, and it is one that clearly directs them to send proposals for new gaming venues to the voters.

Julia Munsey is the chair of the board of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce. This column was written on behalf of its directors.

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