CALAIS, Maine — Supporters of a Passamaquoddy Tribe effort to build a racino here gathered Monday to tout the backing of businesses across Maine for a yes vote on referendum Question 2 on the statewide ballot Nov. 8.
At a news conference at the Calais Motor Inn on Main Street, tribal chiefs, local officials and others unveiled a 13-foot banner that contained the names of more than 500 businesses supporting the ballot measure.
Question 2 reads: “Do you want to allow a slot machine facility at a harness racing track in Biddeford or another community within 25 miles of Scarborough Downs, subject to local approval, and at a harness racing track in Washington County, with part of the profits from these facilities going to support specific state and local programs?”
Question 3 on the ballot asks voters to approve a casino in downtown Lewiston.
The tribe, with reservations at Indian Township near Princeton and Pleasant Point near Eastport, is behind the project in Washington County, while in Biddeford, the project is the joint effort of Ocean Properties and Scarborough Downs. Those two companies hope to move Scarborough Downs to Biddeford if voters approve Question 2.
Among the businesses on the list of supporters were Ace Hardware of Calais, Bell’s IGA, Border Electric, Boston Shoe, FEDEX Calais, DiCenzo Realty, Pratt Chevrolet, The Schooner Restaurant and V.L. Tammarro Oil, Dysart’s Service, General Appliance and Hartt Transportation.
Although proponents are accelerating their push to get Question 2 approved, opponents are not sitting idly by. There is opposition from such groups as No More Casinos Maine, Mainers Against a Rotten Deal, the Christian Civic League of Maine, the Maine Friends of Animals, Casinos NO! and the Friends of the Oxford Casino.
Dennis Bailey of Casinos No! who has been involved in efforts to defeat similar gambling ballot initiatives in the past, said additional gambling establishments would not bring new revenue to the state.
“People are being misled. These do not bring jobs or economic development, they only take money from the local economy,” Bailey said. He said casinos also take needed funds from established businesses in a community.
Arguments that the facility’s proximity to the border would attract mostly Canadians also did not fly with Bailey.
“Guess what. New Brunswick has its own casino,” Bailey said. He predicted Canadians would not travel to Maine to gamble.
Mark Ferguson of Friends of the Oxford Casino said his group wanted taxable income from the casinos to go to education in Maine.
“I am not opposed to casino gambling at all, but I want to make sure that the children are getting the lion’s share collected from these facilities,” Ferguson said.
Chris O’Neil of Mainers Against a Rotten Deal out of Biddeford said his group was optimistic that voters would look at the push for three more gambling facilities, say “too much too fast,” and vote both Question 2 and 3 down.
He said his group wants to see some kind of state planning.
“Vote these down now, come up with a new way to site locate and regulate casinos and then we will talk next year,” O’Neil said.
Despite the opposition, the referendum question has been endorsed by the state’s major newspapers including the Bangor Daily News, the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal, the Waterville Sentinel and the Sun Journal of Lewiston.
This is the fourth time that the tribe has gone before either the Legislature or voters on Election Day to ask for support for a racino Down East. The Passamaquoddy’s most recent defeat was in 2007 when voters turned down the tribe’s request to build a $50 million racino in Calais.
But that same year, voters did approve a measure that allowed Hollywood Slots to build a racino in Bangor. Penobscot County voters will be asked on Nov. 8 to expand gambling at Hollywood Slots to include table games. Another casino approved by voters last year is under construction in Oxford County.
“Now it is our turn,” Indian Township Tribal Chief Joe Socobasin said during Monday’s news conference in Calais.
According to Socobasin, the tribe wants to forge its own economic development path and he said a racino would help it do that.
“Our racino doesn’t get us to the end of the path, but it’s an important start,” Socobasin said.
Pleasant Point tribal Chief Clayton Cleaves noted that for the past two decades, the tribe has tried to get a gaming facility Down East.
“Each time we have been turned down. Legislatures have turned us down, governors have turned us down, and Maine voters have turned us down,” Cleaves said.
Cleaves stressed that the tribe was not asking for special treatment.
“We just want the same economic opportunities that have been given to the folks in other parts of Maine. We want to provide jobs for Washington County, for people in the tribe and people not in the tribe. We want to make a better future for the next generations,” Cleaves said.
John Marchese, who owns the Calais Motor Inn, said he supported the measure. “The crowd here today knows better than anyone that the recession has hit us very hard in Washington County,” he said. “Unemployment is above 10 percent, much higher than the state average and we have had very few projects to cheer about.”
But the racino would be something to cheer about, he said.
“I see Question 2 as an opportunity to help our regional economy and the state’s economy as a whole. A racino will be a destination that introduces people to a beautiful part of Maine,” Marchese added.
Calais City Manager Diane Barnes predicted that the racino would be one of the largest economic investments the region has ever had.
She also disagreed with opponents’ take on the Canadian impact.
“If Maine voters pass Question 2, the racino will be an attractive destination that will bring people from all different parts of the United States and Canada to Calais,” she said.
Although the tribe is pushing hard to get the measure passed, it has provided no specifics about the cost or size of the project.
During past efforts, the tribe had an option on a 300-acre parcel in Calais.
“We spent a decent amount of money in 2007 on options. So this time we’ve just said if it passes, we will go to the land owners. We know they are still interested in selling it, but we haven’t negotiated prices at this point,” Socobasin said Monday.
Nor have tribal leaders attached a dollar amount to how much it would cost to build a racino. They said they would pursue a feasibility study once the measure passed.
Cleaves said the tribe was optimistic that this year would be its year.
“We have been on the dance floor now for nearly 20 years,” he said. “The whole idea is that gaming is allowed in the state of Maine [and] now it is our turn.”