Opponents, backers of expanded gambling face off in Biddeford

Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, speaks during a press conference in Biddeford on Oct. 27 organized by various groups opposing Questions 2 and 3 on the November ballot, which would OK racinos in Biddeford and Washington County and a casino in Lewiston.
Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, speaks during a press conference in Biddeford on Oct. 27 organized by various groups opposing Questions 2 and 3 on the November ballot, which would OK racinos in Biddeford and Washington County and a casino in Lewiston.
Posted Oct. 27, 2011, at 6:20 p.m.

BIDDEFORD, Maine — Opponents and supporters of expanding gambling in Maine held dueling press conferences here on Thursday, one side extolling the support of 500 businesses for two new racinos, the other decrying the social and economic woes they say gambling brings.

There are two statewide gambling referendum questions on the Nov. 8 ballot. Question 2 asks voters to approve slots facilities at horse racetracks, also called racinos, in Biddeford and in Washington County. Question 3 asks for approval of a casino in downtown Lewiston.

There is currently one racino in Maine, Hollywood Slots in Bangor. Penobscot County voters are considering whether to allow the racino to expand to include table games. One casino is under construction in Oxford County.

On Thursday, proponents of Question 2 held an event at Reilly’s Bakery in downtown Biddeford, unrolling a 13-foot banner that had the names of more than 500 businesses statewide that support the proposal. Some of those names included Dysart’s Service, General Appliance, Hartt Transportation, G.R. Dimillo’s and the Fishermen’s Grill.

“Businesses understand that when you have good projects in front of you, it can be a win for everyone,” said Crystal Canney, spokesperson for the proposal. “A win for the towns where they’ll be situated, a win for Maine residents.”

The Biddeford project would involve the relocation of Scarborough Downs to Biddeford, where a hotel would be built by Ocean Properties. According to proponents, it would create 800 construction jobs and 500 full-time jobs, with average salaries and benefits of $35,000 a year.

Nearby, in a redeveloped mill building, a coalition of groups opposing Questions 2 and 3 held a press conference to demonstrate their united front.

“There’s a real threat bearing down upon Maine,” said Chris O’Neil, spokesman for Mainers Against a Rotten Deal, “and there’s a very real and vigorous opposition to that threat.”

Other groups represented include CasinosNO!, the Christian Civic League of Maine, No More Casinos Maine, the Maine Friends of Animals and the Friends of Oxford Casino.

Dennis Bailey, executive director of CasinosNO!, noted that the vote to approve the Oxford County casino last fall was close, 284,934 to 280,211.

Mainers had repeatedly voted down gambling expansions in the past, said Bailey, and he believed that sentiment still prevailed, despite the Oxford County vote.

“I don’t think our votes have gone anywhere,” he said, adding that he believed most Mainers were dubious about the economic benefit claims of casino proponents.

Bailey said new gambling establishments won’t bring in new revenue to the state, but will cater to locals, and take their discretionary spending away from other businesses.

Matthew Boucher of Ellsworth, with the group No More Casinos Maine, said he believed the proponents were using support of the harness racing industry as a tool to gain votes, playing on the state’s heritage of agriculture.

Robert Fiske of Friends of Maine Animals said the horses used in harness racing were often mistreated, and the industry should not be supported.

And Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, said if the questions pass, “there will be casualties.”

“I’m tired of seeing the families that have been destroyed,” he said.

Conley said there are families in the Bangor area who have gone through bankruptcies and divorces because of problem gambling.

Bailey pointed to several embezzling cases linked to gambling — a problem he said would grow if there were more places to gamble.

Canney, however, disputed those arguments.

“What destroys families is poverty, and jobs help get people out of poverty,” said Canney. “We’re looking at saving 1,500 jobs in the harness racing industry, more in agriculture, and creating 800 temporary construction jobs, 500 full-time jobs in Biddeford, and hundreds more in Washington County.”

Stavros Mendros, one of the proponents of the Lewiston plan, took issue with arguments that the casino proposals would hurt downtowns.

“I honestly wonder if these no people even know how to read,” said Mendros. “They lump us all together – it’s intellectual laziness.”

The Lewiston proposal is specifically set downtown in the city, he noted. The Oxford casino project would hurt Lewiston’s downtown, he suggested, drawing people out of the city to spend money elsewhere.

“We’re just trying to compete and fight sprawl,” he said. “None of this applies to us.”

That plan proposes 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. That operation, too, would employ 800 workers during construction and 500 on completion, supporters say.

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