PORTLAND, Maine — The number of places in Maine approved for Las Vegas-style gambling could jump from two to five with two statewide referendums seeking approval for three new gambling venues far-flung across the state.
Question 2 on the Nov. 8 ballot seeks approval for a racino — a harness racing track with slot machines — in Biddeford and another racino nearly 250 miles away in Washington County. Question 3 asks voters if they want a casino with slot machines and table games in downtown Lewiston, an hour north of Biddeford.
A separate referendum in Penobscot County asks voters to approve blackjack, craps and other table games at Hollywood Slots in Bangor, which has 1,000 slot machines and is Maine’s only operating casino. The Oxford Casino in the western Maine town of Oxford, approved by voters last November, is expected to open next spring.
Regional voting patterns could play a role in the outcome of the election. Gambling supporters could vote in favor of a racino or casino in their area but oppose others under the premise that multiple gambling facilities would hurt the one in their region.
People in Lewiston could vote in favor of a casino in their city but vote against a racino in Biddeford, and vice versa, said Dennis Bailey, executive director of the CasinosNo! anti-casino group. Gambling supporters in Washington County might vote against the Lewiston proposal, while those in Oxford and Penobscot counties could end up voting against both proposals for fear they’ll hurt the casinos already in those places, Hollywood Slots and The Oxford Casino.
“It’ll be tough for them to pull together a winning coalition,” Bailey said. “I don’t think people will stand to have five casinos in Maine, which will be more than any place in New England.”
Proponents downplay the effect of such blocs.
Regional voting variations probably won’t be as prevalent as in the past now that slot machines have been in Maine for six years, said Tom Varley, senior vice president of Ocean Properties Ltd., which is proposing to build the Biddeford racino.
“That may have been the case when they were voting for gaming approval in the state, but now that gaming is already in Maine, I don’t know if you’ll see that regional division,” Varley said. “This is really about states taking charge and control of their revenues and creating their own jobs.”
This is the seventh time in 11 years that Mainers are being asked to approve casino or racino referendums.
By this time, people have heard the arguments.
Supporters say gambling is well-established in Maine and that new gambling venues will bring jobs and economic development and generate tax revenues. They maintain it’ll help the state’s harness racing industry by earmarking revenues for racing and drawing more customers to tracks.
But critics assert that casino backers are giving false promises and that gambling sucks money out of the economy. They say expanded gambling will contribute to societal ills such as gambling addiction, bankruptcy, divorce and suicide.
In Biddeford, Portsmouth, N.H.-based Ocean Properties Ltd. and Scarborough Downs race track are teaming up on a proposal to build a new track with slot machines called Biddeford Downs, not far from the Maine Turnpike. Developers say the project would cost $120 million and include a hotel and entertainment complex.
The project would employ 800 construction workers and 500 full-time employees once it opens, while generating more than $50 million in annual revenues toward the state’s general fund, college scholarships, agricultural fairs and harness racing, the developers say.
In Lewiston, Great Falls Recreation and Redevelopment LLC would spend more than $100 million turning an abandoned textile mill that employed thousands of workers at its heyday into a casino, hotel and conference center, said Stavros Mendros, the manager of the project. Like Biddeford Downs, that project would employ 800 more workers during construction and 500 or so after it opens, Mendros said.
The Passamaquoddy Tribe, which would have the rights over a racino in Washington County, has not announced specific plans. Chief Joseph Socobasin did not return phone calls for comment, but said in a statement last month that the project would attract gambling dollars from Canada, help local business and create jobs that “we desperately need.”
In elections in recent years, support for casinos and racinos has varied widely across the state depending on where the facility was being proposed.
Last November, for instance, Oxford County residents voted in favor of a casino in Oxford, 62 percent to 38 percent, while people in Washington County voted against it by a 70-30 margin.
Conversely in 2007, Washington County voters supported a racino in their own county, 70 percent to 30 percent, while voters in Oxford County voted against it, 51-49.
It would make sense for gambling supporters to support a casino in their region and oppose it elsewhere, said Clyde Barrow, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. If multiple casinos and racinos are approved, they would siphon off customers from each other, resulting in smaller facilities with fewer amenities and jobs, he said.
The risk of that happening is greatest in southern Maine, where Biddeford, Lewiston and Oxford would compete for customers, he said. Biddeford is about 50 miles from both Lewiston and Oxford, which are only 20 miles apart.
“You could support three facilities, but you’d end up with three very small facilities that would primarily draw local convenience gamblers and would not be job creators,” Barrow said.
Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, said he expects some “cannibalism” among people who support expanded gambling in one place but not another. But he expects casino developers to pour money into their campaigns, while his opposition campaign will be grass-roots.
“We’re doing everything we can to make to make sure there isn’t a slot machine for every 100 citizens of Maine,” he said.
Mendros, for one, said he will vote in favor of both Question 2 and 3. Supporting one proposal and voting against another would be like welcoming a McDonald’s to town while trying to ban Burger King, he said.
If other rural states can have multiple gambling sites, so can Maine, he said. At the end of 2010, Montana had 14 casinos, New Mexico had 38 casinos and racinos, and Iowa had 18 casinos and racinos, according to the American Gaming Association.
“The fact is there’s plenty of market to go around,” Mendros said.