BIDDEFORD, Maine — Backers of a referendum to allow a harness racing track with slot machines in southern Maine kicked off their campaign Monday with assurances the project would create hundreds of jobs, generate tens of millions of dollars in annual tax revenues and revive Maine’s harness racing industry.
The Nov. 8 ballot question will ask Mainers if they want to allow slot machines at a track in Biddeford or another community within 25 miles of the Scarborough Downs racetrack and at a track in Washington County. Ocean Properties Ltd. and Scarborough Downs are teaming up on the proposal to build a track called Biddeford Downs.
Speaking at a horse farm, leaders of the “Yes on Question 2” campaign said the $120 million development will create 800 construction jobs and 500 full-time jobs once the facility opens while generating more than $54 million in tax revenues.
Biddeford Mayor Joanne Twomey said her city lost two businesses and 40 jobs in the past week alone, and that she heard from two other businesses that said they could be next. Biddeford Downs would help the city rebuild its economic base, she said.
“These are real jobs for real families in our community,” Twomey said.
Casino critics said the developers are offering false promises. Rather than helping the economy, the racino would merely suck money out, said Dennis Bailey, executive director of CasinosNo!
“It won’t revive harness racing, and it won’t improve economic development for Biddeford or for Maine,” he said. “The evidence is crystal clear.”
Mainers will vote on two statewide referendums involving casino gambling in the November election. A separate question on the ballot will ask voters if they want to allow a casino with table games and slot machines in Lewiston.
Maine now has one slots parlor in Bangor. A casino is under construction in the western Maine town of Oxford.
Ocean Properties, a hotel and resort company based in Portsmouth, N.H., and Scarborough Downs last year outlined their plan to build a new harness racing track with up to 1,500 slot machines on a property not far from the Maine Turnpike. The project also would include a hotel, restaurants and a small entertainment complex.
With a 61 percent to 39 percent vote, Biddeford residents last year approved a local ballot question asking whether they supported allowing slot machines at a harness racing track. If voters statewide approve the proposal, Biddeford Downs could be open for business by late 2013, said Tom Varley, senior vice president of Ocean Properties. Scarborough Downs would close.
Supporters at Monday’s press conference spoke in front of a trailer stacked high with bales of hay. An anvil, horseshoe and blacksmith hammer were on display in front of them. A harness racing driver stood nearby holding a racehorse named CC Bagaluck.
Besides touting jobs and taxes, supporters said a racino in Biddeford would pump millions of dollars a year into the horse racing industry. It would preserve farmland and help horse breeders, hay farmers and others who support the industry, they said.
It’s time to stop arguing about gambling, because Maine has been a gambling state since it launched the lottery in 1974, said Rick Skoglund, a businessman from Waldoboro.
“We’re not breaking any new ground, but what will happen is that for the first time we can have a resort that combines harness racing, slots and a hotel that will provide an attractive facility for Mainers and tourists alike,” he said.
But naysayers such as Biddeford City Councilor Clement Fleurent say Biddeford Downs will create social problems such as gambling addiction while drawing money out of the local economy and shifting it out to Biddeford Downs. Rather than spend money at downtown stores, residents will pump it into slot machines, Fleurent said.
“It’s not going to benefit Biddeford,” said Fleurent, who also opposes gambling on moral grounds. “To me it’s a redistribution of money. That’s all it is.”