After 20 years of rejections, Passamaquoddy tribe hopeful casino legislation might finally pass

Madonna Soctomah
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Posted Aug. 06, 2013, at 5:24 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 07, 2013, at 5:39 a.m.
Joseph Socobasin
Photo courtesy of MaineDOT
Joseph Socobasin

PRINCETON, Maine — The governor of the Passamaquoddy Indian tribe in Indian Township is hopeful that Maine’s political climate has changed enough to allow the Legislature to pass a bill that will enable the tribe at long last to establish a casino and racetrack.

A bill was introduced in the Legislature this year by the tribe’s elected representative, Madonna Soctomah, to allow Washington County to hold a referendum on the proposed casino and racetrack, but it and other gaming bills were carried over until 2014. A newly formed state commission, which met for the first time in July, is charged with developing a competitive bidding process for more casinos and slot machine facilities in Maine. The panel also is charged with studying the economic impacts of existing casinos and the development of new ones.

The Passamaquoddys have been seeking legislative approval for a casino since 1993. Bills have been passed, but voters have turned down the tribe’s request in statewide referendums. Since it began lobbying for casino legislation 20 years ago, casinos have been established in Bangor and Oxford.

Joseph Socobasin, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, notes the tribe’s latest legislative effort is different because it seeks a local referendum for Washington County voters. He is optimistic how the legislation will be received by lawmakers representing the Bangor region.

“We’ve talked to the folks from Bangor,” Socobasin said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I don’t know where they’ll come down … My sense is as long as we’re 100 miles away, they wouldn’t oppose [the tribe's latest gambling initiative].

“I think people in Augusta … recognize this is something we pursued before anybody had the right to game in Maine,” said Socobasin, who suggested the tribe has gained some sympathetic legislators over the years, including some who may have not supported it in the past.

“You never know,” he added.

The tribe is eying two tracts of land comprising about 700 acres along Route 9 and U.S. Route 1 in Calais near the new bridge for commercial truck traffic passing between the U.S. and Canada.

“It shouldn’t be a problem getting a piece of land,” said Socobasin, who is a member of the gaming commission but was unable to attend the first session.

The tribe had a feasibility study done in 2007 in conjunction with its proposed casino, but Socobasin was hesitant to cite figures from it. The number of jobs a casino would create and potential economic impact on the region may be smaller in light of the development of casinos in Bangor and Oxford, he noted.

“I do think we’ll have some impact on Hollywood [casino in Bangor],” said Socobasin. “I hope it would be minimal.”

The tribe’s study projected significant visitorship, particularly by Canadians, he noted.

“In 2007, the numbers were pretty staggering,” said Socobasin. “It’s overwhelmingly Canadian traffic. … That’s where a lot of the disposable income is in our area.”

Calais officials have been supportive of the tribe’s quest for a casino — they view it as an economic development boon — and the City Council has endorsed the concept in the past.

“Truly, it’s going to bring economic development,” Calais Mayor Marianne Moore said recently. “It’s going to bring more funding into the area. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”

A casino and racetrack would spur additional business growth, she said, and the city also would receive a percentage of the gambling revenues.

“Look at all the [New] Brunswick license plates in Hollywood Casino,” said Moore. City officials hope the Canadians would stop in Calais rather than going to the casino in Bangor.

“I’m not saying it’s the cure-all,” said Councilor Bill Howard. “It’s just a piece of the pie. At this moment in time, we could use any jobs we can get.” He added that young people who grow up in the Calais region are often forced to leave in order to find jobs.

Washington County voters, who have voted in favor of casino referendums in the past, should be allowed to decide the issue in a local referendum, said Howard.

“That’s the way it should be. I don’t tell southern Maine what they do. So they shouldn’t be telling us what we do,” he said.

The people of Washington County “absolutely should be the only ones voting on it,” he added.

Washington County’s delegation in the Legislature is squarely behind the tribe, said Socobasin, with the exception of state Sen. David Burns of Whiting.

“He has his reasons, which we respect,” said Socobasin.

Rep. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, was uncertain about the bill’s prospects in the 2014 legislature, but she echoed a similar sentiment as Howard.

“Other parts of Maine are trying to tell us what to do in Washington County,” she said Tuesday. “It should be up to us.”

The tribe has gotten a “raw deal,” in the past, she said. They were the first to propose gambling and have been rebuffed at every turn since.

“I’m going to stand behind them,” Maker said.

The Passamaquoddy Indian tribe is pursuing other economic development initiatives, too, observed Socobasin saying, “We’re not just about gaming.”

Washington County suffers from high unemployment, noted Socobasin.

“I would love to be able to impact that, to change that,” he said.

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