May 27, 2018
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Big gambling expansions on the November ballot

By Matt Wickenheiser, BDN Staff

Maine voters will once again be asked to decide whether to expand gambling in the state, as the Nov. 8 ballot has two statewide gaming questions.

Question 2 asks voters to approve two racinos, one in Biddeford to be operated by the owners of Scarborough Downs and Ocean Properties Limited, and one in Washington County to be run by the Passamaquoddy Tribe. Racinos are horse tracks with slot machine parlors.

Question 3 seeks voter approval for a full-fledged casino with slots and table games for downtown Lewiston, in the old No. 5 building of the Bates Mill.

Currently, the state’s only racino is in Bangor, at Hollywood Slots, which was supported by voters in 2003. Hollywood Slots also is asking voters in Penobscot County to allow the operation to expand to include table games.

Mainers narrowly approved a casino for Oxford County in a 284,934 to 280,211 vote last November. That property is under construction along Route 26 and is expected to open in the spring.

With the exception of the 2003 Hollywood Slots vote and the Oxford County vote, gambling proponents have pushed hard and steadily on the Maine electorate with little result. This year marks the seventh time in 11 years voters in Maine will consider a casino or racino question.

But each vote in each year is different, said Brian Duff, a University of New England political scientist. Voters last year approving the Oxford County casino after previously denying it doesn’t mark a statewide shift in opinion, he said, particularly given the close nature of the vote.

“People don’t form strong, lasting opinions about whether casinos are right or casinos are wrong, or casinos should be built anywhere or only on Native American lands,” Duff said.

“It’s an issue you think about when it comes up on the news, you read what people are saying about it, and make a decision.”

The arguments for and against have remained constant over the years. For proponents, the benefits include jobs in construction and ongoing in the business once it’s up and running. Funds from the business go to support the state’s operating budget, the host community and a variety of other designated programs. In the case of the racinos, in particular, the argument is that the operations support the state’s harness racing industry, which has an impact across the farming sector.

“Fundamentally, what’s important about this project is that it will preserve the jobs of the existing harness racing industry, which supports 1,500 existing jobs, by giving that group a fair chance to compete,” said Ed MacColl, attorney for Scarborough Downs. “And it’s also expanding employment, with 800 construction jobs to be created and 500 additional to be created by having a fully integrated racino.”

This year, said Duff, the economy could play favorably for gambling proponents.

“The most basic thing is that as long as the pro-casino forces can hammer away at that message about jobs, jobs, jobs, it’s a good year for them,” said Duff.

Opponents have long argued that casinos and racinos bring with them societal problems, from increased crime to problem gambling as well as development and traffic issues. The group Mainers Against a Rotten Deal, which first emerged to oppose the local Biddeford vote for a racino and has since expanded to a statewide platform, makes the argument that more oversight is needed on the siting and licensing of gambling operations and is pushing for a six-month moratorium to allow for future study.

“We absolutely need jobs, but when you have a form of development that carries with it such high impacts — fiscal impacts, social impacts and land-use impacts — the state has a tradition of planning,” said Chris O’Neil, the group’s spokesperson.

The anti-gambling message is slightly harder to convey than the pro-jobs one of the proponents, said Duff.

“I do think people don’t want Maine to become a state where there are big, hulking, neon-colored, cheesy casinos in every downtown,” said Duff.

Question 2: Biddeford Downs and Washington County

The Scarborough Downs race track has sought to open a slots facility for years, but the proposal has been shot down repeatedly by local voters. Last year, said MacColl, Biddeford voters approved the racino proposal by a 60-40 margin, and Scarborough Downs plans to move its operation to Biddeford, right off the Turnpike, should voters approve the project this November.

“The people of Biddeford recognize this project is going to be very good for their future,” said MacColl. “It’s going to create badly needed jobs in Biddeford, local revenues in Biddeford.”

The $120 million project would include the racetrack and a 200-room hotel. Patrons could dine and watch and bet on the races, then go into a parlor for the slots.

It’s the integrated model of racetrack and slots that the state first considered in 1997 under a governor’s task force, said MacColl. Racetracks in Delaware had adopted that model, and it proved a boon to the harness racing industry there.

Racetracks in Pennsylvania and New York have gone that route, and the Maine harness racing industry is at a competitive disadvantage, said MacColl.

MacColl said the proposal would adjust state laws to allow racinos in Biddeford and Washington County, but would leave the rest of the laws intact, including governance over how funds are shared, how the operations are regulated, etc.

MacColl said the partners conservatively estimate 800 construction jobs created by the project, with 500 at the operation upon completion.

The proponents broadened the question to seek approval for a Washington County racino, an effort that has been pushed unsuccessfully in the past.

“Washington County should have a chance to have some economic opportunity,” said MacColl.

In a recent Bangor Daily News story, Reuben “Clayton” Cleaves, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point, noted there was an unemployment rate of nearly 67 percent on the two reservations at Indian Township and Pleasant Point. “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,” Cleaves said, adding that a special foundation created from the racino’s profits would fund incubator businesses throughout the county, creating a ripple effect of economic growth.

Question 3: Lewiston

In Lewiston, Great Falls Recreation and Redevelopment LLC is proposing a $100 million development that would take the abandoned No. 5 building at the old Bates textile mill and renovate it into a casino, hotel and conference center.

“This will revive this mill, a brownfield site that will be changed over to a first-class entertainment facility,” said Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert.

That operation, too, would employ 800 workers during construction and 500 on completion.

“Where else have we seen an infusion of jobs like that here in the state of Maine?” asked Gilbert. “Obviously, we do need the jobs. We also have a significant Somali population that’s come in that could use jobs.”

Gilbert noted that the city lost a post office distribution center some years back, and the main highway to the city is a toll road, the Turnpike. The city needs economic development, he said, and voters supported it with 66 percent of the vote in local referendum.

“It’s our turn. We want it,” said Gilbert. “All we’re asking for is for the people of Maine to let us have it.”

In addition to jobs, Gilbert sees the project as an anchor to the redevelopment of the Riverfront Island part of the city, just a block from the downtown area of Lisbon Street. That area’s growing with upper-scale restaurants, a wine shop and other businesses, said Gilbert. All that is needed to make Lewiston an attractive place for young people to want to live and work, said Gilbert.

Gilbert also noted that the proposed legislative language shares revenues across a wide range of groups, from veterans groups to transportation projects. The proposal has been criticized by some as trying to buy votes, but Gilbert dismissed that idea.

“We could keep it all. Obviously we want the votes, but we want people from throughout the state of Maine to enjoy some benefits from this,” said Gilbert.

The arguments against more casinos

O’Neil, from Mainers Against a Rotten Deal, said some people feel that the door to gambling has been opened, so why not open it further?

“There’s a sense out there that the casino question has been asked and answered. For many the question was casinos yes or casinos no? Now it has evolved to casinos how many, casinos where, casinos benefiting whom,” said O’Neil. “We say it’s best to ask and answer those questions without pending casino proposals in the room.”

His group argues for slowing down and taking a better look at what Maine allows now, how the state could site operations in the future and what sort of revenue should it seek to make off such businesses.

“Maine lets anybody who can go out and gather signatures walk in the door, calling themselves a casino developer with whatever proposal they think they can sell politically,” said O’Neil.

Overall, said O’Neil, his group would advocate that the Legislature look at more funding for gambling victims, more broad-based sharing of the proceeds and, as a baseline, a greater share of the proceeds to start with.

And while the state doesn’t normally do market capacity regulation for most businesses, said O’Neil, that would be appropriate in this area.

“This is a special form of development that has high impacts,” he said.

In addition, political action committees that are supporting Hollywood Slots and the Oxford casino have argued that allowing three new operations would mean the businesses would cannibalize each other if development is too rapid.

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.

Mark Ferguson, who heads the Friends of Oxford Casino PAC, argued that voters should slow down the gambling expansion in Maine and at least wait to see how the Oxford casino fares after it opens.

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

Proponents of the two referendum questions dismissed those arguments.

“Do we say, ‘Oh gee, we have too many Walmarts, we have too many Home Depots?’” said Gilbert. “I think the market will determine if there is saturation or not — these are businesses.”

Likewise, said MacColl, “The competition from Oxford will make us better. We welcome the competition from anyone else.”

Both men said the Legislature has looked at proposals and studied the issues ad nauseum.

“The reality is the opponents don’t want one more debate — they want endless debate,” said MacColl. “We want to put people to work, and we think there’s been more than enough debate to understand harness racing’s needs, the city’s desires.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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