INDIAN TOWNSHIP, Maine — Renovations are under way at a former Passamaquoddy recreation center to bring high stakes bingo and 50 electronic gaming machines to a tribal complex that will include a restaurant and bowling alley.
Although Passamaquoddy Tribal Gov. William Nicholas would not say how large an investment is being made in the gaming hall, he is optimistic it will be an economic boon to northeastern Washington County.
“There is a lot of interest already,” even before the kickoff of a major marketing campaign scheduled for June 1, he said Wednesday.
Nicholas envisions buses from Maine, Canada and beyond bringing up to 500 people to the reservation each Saturday and Sunday.
“We expect to employ 30 to 40 people for two to four days a week,” he said. “The wages will be good.”
Jobs will be open for security, floor personnel, restaurant workers and others.
“It certainly will pay a lot more than unemployment,” Nicholas said.
The tribe already is meeting with local hotel and motel owners, restaurateurs, camp and lodge owners and others to define just how many weekend visitors can be handled.
“This is not just about bingo,” Nicholas said. “This is about providing jobs and bringing some stability to our area. It will help make us more independent and provide an economic boost. The entertainment, the food, the lodging will all have a huge impact on Baileyville, Calais and beyond.”
Nicholas said the more people that come to the games, the greater the payoffs will be, both inside the gaming hall and outside.
For example, all proceeds from the hall’s restaurant will be funneled into programs for the Passamaquoddy youth.
“We don’t want to become too big,” the governor said. “We just want to be sustainable.”
The tribe has already leased 50 Class II gaming machines, which look almost identical to slot machines. Their use was allowed by a new state law that goes into effect July 15. The gaming hall is expected to open July 17.
David Bowler of the Maine State Police gaming division explained that the machines are allowed because they are not slot machines, but are merely dispensing mechanisms for bar-coded tickets.
“The element of chance is in the ticket itself,” Bowler said. “The machine can have no effect on the outcome.”
A patron puts money in the machine, hits a button and the ticket comes out.
But for those who like glitz and a Las Vegas rush, the bells and whistles will still sound when there is a big winner, and various symbols will still spin around in the machine’s window. The machine reads the bar code as it dispenses the sealed ticket and sounds off.
The machines are allowed on Indian reservations under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1984 and can be used only in conjunction with high stakes bingo games.
“The Passamaquoddy really did their homework,” Bowler said. “They wanted to do everything right and they were very good to work with.”
Creating new businesses that will funnel revenue into the local economy is part of an overall plan that brought the tribe from near bankruptcy three years ago to a sound financial position under Nicholas’ leadership.
The gaming hall should create jobs, help the reservation become self-sustaining and fund even more infrastructure and tribal improvements.
The 500 people expected to pour into Indian Township each weekend will in turn benefit area motels and hotels, particularly in Calais, and increase business across the board at restaurants, gas stations and others.
In addition, the employees will now have ready cash to spend in the area.
“On the reservation, we don’t have a car dealership,” said Roger G. Ritter of the tribal economic development office on Wednesday. “We don’t have a clothing store. We don’t have a supermarket. Money made by the employees will be spent and benefit the surrounding communities.”
Meanwhile, as the financial structure of the tribe has improved, the money is being plowed right back into bettering life on the reservation.
Using a combination of tribal money, U.S. Department of Agriculture grant funds, Community Development Block Grants and federal stimulus funds, the reservation’s public works building has been renovated, a major addition and upgrade at the town’s police and fire station is under way, roads are being repaired, an older building was renovated to house the tribe’s social services departments and more than a half million dollars will be spent on renovating tribal housing.
“That alone will create 10 to 12 new jobs with the housing authority,” Nicholas said.
In addition, the increased revenue will give the tribe matching funds to leverage future grants for improvement.
When he was elected governor 3½ years ago the tribe was in upheaval, Nicholas said. Former governor Robert Newell and the tribe’s business manager had been found guilty in federal court of charges in connection with the misuse of tribal and federal funds between 2002 and 2006. Newell was sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to pay $1.74 million in restitution.
Former finance director James J. Parisi Jr. of Portland was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison and ordered to pay $1.62 million in restitution for his role.
Nicholas said that before his term money was being wasted on unnecessary projects and at one time people within the administrative offices went more than two weeks without getting paid.
“Some people suggested we lock the doors and declare bankruptcy,” Nicholas said. “But I felt we could rebuild. Not all my decisions have been popular, but they have been necessary for the well-being of the whole community.”
Nicholas hopes that with the addition of the gaming hall, the revenue generated will be reinvested back into the tribe.
“There is a lot of meaning behind this project, not just for the tribe, but for Washington County,” Nicholas said.