Maine casino supporters turn into foes

Posted Oct. 12, 2011, at 12:35 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 12, 2011, at 4:30 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Groups that support casinos in western and central Maine oppose additional gambling spots elsewhere in the state.

Political action committees are speaking out against two statewide referendums on the November ballot asking Mainers if they want to allow a casino in Lewiston and a single racetrack casino in both Biddeford and Washington County.

A PAC funded by the owner of the Hollywood Slots casino in Bangor says more gambling locales in Maine will hurt Hollywood Slots. Another PAC that is supportive of a casino in Oxford, which is slated to open next spring, says casinos will cannibalize each other if they’re built too fast.

If the three proposed gambling sites are approved and built, gross revenues at Hollywood Slots could fall by as much as 30 percent, said Dan Cashman, spokesman for the Penobscot County for Table Games & Jobs PAC.

“It impacts potential jobs. It impacts city funding. It impacts revenues at Hollywood Slots. We think it’s important that people here understand that before they cast their vote,” Cashman said.

For now, Hollywood Slots is the only casino operating in Maine. It was approved by voters in 2003 and has 1,000 slot machines.

The Oxford casino was approved by voters last fall and is now under construction.

On the Nov. 8 ballot, Question 2 will ask Mainers whether they want to allow a harness racing track with slot machines, known as a racino, in southern Maine and another in Washington County. Question 3 asks for approval of a casino with slot machines and table games in Lewiston.

Backers of the referendums say the projects would create thousands of jobs and bring tens of millions of dollars in revenues to the state and municipalities.

But others are questioning the impact they would have on Hollywood Slots and the yet-to-be-named casino in Oxford.

Mark Ferguson, who heads the Friends of Oxford Casino PAC, stands to benefit when a casino opens next spring in Oxford, 10 miles from the gas station-convenience store he owns in the neighboring town of Poland. But voters would do well to slow down the gambling expansion in Maine and at least wait to see how the Oxford casino fares after it opens, he said.

“Right now it’s a free-for-all,” he said.

Besides voting on the statewide gambling ballot questions, residents of Penobscot County will be asked in a countywide referendum whether they want to let Hollywood Slots add black jack, craps and other table games.

Hollywood Slots representatives and supporters are speaking to groups around the county urging people to vote in favor of the referendum. Hollywood Slots says the addition of table games could result in up to 89 new jobs and $1 million a year in new revenue for the state.

At the same time, they’re warning of the potential downside for Hollywood Slots if projects are approved in Biddeford, Lewiston and eastern Maine. Cashman said the campaign will send out two types of mailers: one encouraging a “yes” vote on table games for Hollywood Slots, and one warning of the negative effects new casinos would have on Hollywood Slots.

“A lot of people aren’t aware that if three more of these facilities pop up, in addition to Oxford, there will be negative impacts here,” Cashman said.

Crystal Canney, spokeswoman for the campaign that’s promoting the racino proposals, said the effect of new competition won’t be as dire as opponents suggest. The Biddeford racino, to be called Biddeford Downs, would benefit the entire state, she said.

“What we’re looking at is a resort hotel, an entertainment complex, a harness racing track and slots,” she said. “Our project is very different than any other project in the state, so we feel it’ll draw a very different crowd, due to location and what we have to offer.”

The company that’s building the Oxford casino isn’t taking a public stand on Questions 2 or 3, said Scott Smith, spokesman for Black Bear Development LLC.

But Smith said voters should be asking themselves how many casinos they want in Maine.

“Maine voters are conservative and cautious, but at the end of the day the question remains, ‘Are we ready to zoom from one to five casinos in a year?’” Smith said. “That will be determined by Maine voters.”

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