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Oxford Casino opens for business

Posted June 05, 2012, at 7:06 p.m.
Last modified June 06, 2012, at 7:39 a.m.
John Morrison of Lewiston reacts as the slot machine he is playing racks up points Tuesday night at the Oxford Casino.
Russ Dillingham | Sun Journal
John Morrison of Lewiston reacts as the slot machine he is playing racks up points Tuesday night at the Oxford Casino.

OXFORD — Maine’s newest casino opened at 6 p.m. Tuesday after a ribbon-cutting and reception with owners, managers and staff.

Oxford Casino managers didn’t give much notice in announcing the opening date, spokesman Scott Smith said Tuesday, because they didn’t want the opening to be overwhelmed.

“We wanted it to be a thoughtful first step,” Smith said. “We’re very confident. We’re ready, but it’s not unusual to have a soft opening.”

The soft opening seemed to have worked. When the casino opened its doors, the parking lot was about half full. Gamers got inside without much waiting. Inside were 500 slot machines, a restaurant, a lounge and a dozen table games including blackjack, poker, craps and roulette. A tent next to the side entrance allows customers to sign up for the casino’s loyalty club before entering the building.

Maine’s only other casino is Hollywood Casino, located in Bangor.

Bob Bahre, the casino’s largest initial investor and the former owner of Oxford Plains Speedway, was hoping for a slow opening. He recalled when he opened the New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon in 1990. The opening was so successful that it took until 2 a.m. for the crowds to clear out.

Bahre said he and his son, Gary Bahre, joined up to help bring jobs to the area. After 1,000 positions were lost in local manufacturing, he said, he wanted to start reversing the trend. Now, two years after the Bahres joined other investors in pushing for the casino, Bahre said he was happy to see it open. As of Tuesday, the casino employed about 400 people.

Bahre said he expects that number to go up in the coming years, citing the current expansion and eventual plans to build a hotel and other accommodations. “The 400 jobs here are going to be nothing compared to what you’re going to see in three or four years.”

Bahre said he doesn’t know much about gambling and is happy to let management make the decisions. On Tuesday, he said casino employees approached him and thanked him for the jobs. He told them, “I didn’t hire you.”

General Manager Jack Sours said 95 percent of casino employees are from Maine, and most live in the region. Sours, casino employees, community leaders and the original Black Bear Development investors gathered at the entrance Tuesday for the casino’s opening.

“A lot of us remember this when it was a green field,” Smith said. “Look at it now.”

Bahre spoke at the ribbon-cutting, ensuring the casino would be an honest business. “It’s going to be run right. It’s going to be clean and decent,” he said. “If they don’t do it right, somebody’s going to be singing soprano.”

Floyd Thayer, chairman of the Oxford Board of Selectmen, said it took a lot of work on the town level to get to Tuesday’s opening. “It all started with some meetings. Then more meetings. Then we had a few special selectmen meetings, then a few public hearings. And a few special town meetings, as a matter of fact. It was a long road to here.”

An expansion to the gaming floor is already under construction. Bahre and others spoke over the sound of saw blades and machinery. The expansion will make the gaming floor about 50 percent larger, Smith said.

Peter Martin, governmental relations adviser for Black Bear Development and a shareholder in the casino, said it was the realization of a dream. “I think the vision of the entire ownership team has come through to fruition,” he said before the opening. He said the lodge-like building is “very Maine.”

“In all honesty, it looks better than I thought it was going to,” Bahre said. “It’s something Oxford can be proud of, and it’s something the state can be proud of.”

The casino is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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