CALAIS, Maine — Members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe opened the Calais headquarters of the Yes on 2 campaign Thursday morning, saying they have waited nearly 20 years for the people of Maine to allow them to establish a racino in Washington County. Question No. 2 on the Nov. 8 ballot would approve racinos in Washington County and Biddeford, with the dual themes at Thursday’s launch being jobs and fairness.
With unemployment on the two reservations at Indian Township and Pleasant Point at nearly 67 percent, Passamaquoddy Chief and Pleasant Point Tribal Gov. Reubin Clayton Cleaves said, “We can change our lifestyles by taking control of our destiny. A ‘no’ vote would mean another setback for our county. A ‘yes’ vote would mean that together, we can all move forward.” He said a special foundation, created from the racino’s profits, would fund incubator businesses throughout the county, creating a ripple effect of economic growth.
Cleaves said the Washington County racino is all about jobs, economic development and fairness. “While voters have allowed gambling in Bangor and Oxford County, Mainers have repeatedly denied the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s efforts to have those same opportunities,” he said.
According to a 2007 study by the University of Maine, which was commissioned by the tribe, a Washington County racino could generate $12 million to $13 million a year in slot machine revenue alone, mostly from out-of-state or Canadian visitors.
Cleaves said three developers have already showed interest in financing the project but that the tribe is waiting until after the Nov. 8 vote to make further decisions. Opponents of the racino measure are critical of the tribe’s inaction on a backer and location.
“I think it is shrewd and strategic,” Harold Clossey, director of the Sunrise County Economic Council said Thursday. “They will be ready to go once they have the word.”
Cleaves said the racino would be located either in or near Calais and that Washington County is uniquely positioned for a racino and that it has different attributes than other proposed casino locations in the state. Just across the river from Calais at St. Stephen, New Brunswick, funding is in place and construction is nearly ready to start on a $19 million convention and entertainment center.
“We have a unique opportunity here in Washington County to build on that,” Calais City Manager Diane Barnes said. “That will attract people to this area and a gaming facility and racetrack will keep them here. Because we can attract thousands of Canadians, that is what makes the Calais racino different from the others proposed.”
Clossey said the UMaine 2007 study showed that 70 percent of profits at a Washington County racino would come from Canadian customers, thus countering racino opponents who say additional facilities would water down the customer base. “The state of Maine will have options,’’ he said. “Why does Las Vegas have more than one casino? This would bring together agriculture and entertainment and help make Maine and Washington County a destination.”
Madonna Soctomah, the tribal representative to the Maine Legislature, noted that the tribe has been attempting to build a racino for more than 17 years. Passamaquoddy gambling proposals have been defeated in the Legislature several times and in statewide referendums in 2003 and 2007.
“We have not been heard,” she said. “We have lived too long with too little. We are not asking for government subsidies. We are asking for a chance to be economically self sufficient.”
State Rep. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, agreed. “I have supported this for 17 years and the tribe should have had this opportunity 17 years ago.”
“We need jobs here,” Calais Mayor Joseph Cassidy said. “Calais supports this effort 100 percent.”
Clossey said the Passamaquoddy Tribe needs to have the same opportunity in Washington County as developers in other locations across the state. “Whether it is Biddeford, Bangor, Oxford County or Calais, we need to ensure secure steady growth. A racino here would provide a ripple effect felt across the state. The time is now to put more Maine people to work.”
Soctomah was frank in discussing why the efforts have failed in the past. “The idea was to suppress the tribal effort in order to promote the other private efforts. This has been two decades of suppression of Native Americans.” Soctomah said she blames a lack of education by the general public about tribal cultures. “When we look at the natural resources of Maine, we are definitely a natural resource. We need each other if we are going to improve the economic state of Maine. We need to take advantage of all resources. We are being overlooked.”
Soctomah said that many Maine residents believe that Native Americans “get lots of free stuff. We don’t get anything that any other Maine person is entitled to. But we need the right to work. We need the right to self-dignity. We need our own role models for our own children.”
Cleaves asked that voters consider the economic impact of their votes and not tribal racism. “I have observed throughout my life, endless hate, prejudice and fear of Native Americans,” he said. “What have we ever done to deserve such treatment? All we want is to provide our families with jobs, homes, hope and a brighter future — the same as you.”
The Yes on 2 supporters have offices in Calais, Biddeford, and Bangor. More information can be found at www.PuttingMaineToWork.com.
An early version of this story misattributed a quote about jobs to Joseph Bernadini. The person being quoted was actually Joseph Cassidy, the mayor of Calais.