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Racino backers kick off campaign in Bangor, Biddeford

Kevin Bennett | BDN
Kevin Bennett | BDN
Heath Campbell of Corinna walks his horse Crusin Full Throttle before speaking in favor of Yes on 2 at a press conference in Bangor on Monday, September 19, 2011. "I love Maine and I don't want to leave," he said while stumping for Question 2 which seeks approval of racinos in Biddeford and Washingotn County.
By Andrew Neff, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — Supporters of proposed racinos in Biddeford and Washington County teamed up for press conferences in Bangor and Biddeford on Monday to rally support by promoting the increased employment and income they say the facilities would create.

“I think it comes down to a simple equation of needing jobs,” Harold Clossey, executive director of the Sunrise County Economic Council, said Monday afternoon at the Bangor event, held on the grounds of Pembroke Farm, longtime racehorse owner Bill Varney’s breeding and training grounds for harness racing horses. “If we have a chance to combine a traditional industry like agriculture with the entertainment industry, that’s a valuable mixture. As far as jobs, one job is important in Washington County. Whether it’s one or 100, it means a lot to our area.”

Eight other people from from several walks of life came to the podium, one by one, to explain why they’re hoping Maine residents will vote “yes” on Question 2, which seeks approval of slot machines in Biddeford and at a racetrack at a yet-to-be-determined location in Washington County.

“I don’t want to leave Maine,” longtime harness racing driver and trainer Heath Campbell of Corinna said just after the horse he was walking neighed noisily in a perfectly timed introduction. “I’ve been here my whole life and I don’t mind working hard and getting my hands dirty. These are real jobs for real people.”

Critics of the proposal contend that supporters are making false promises. Rather than help the economy, a racino merely would suck money out of it, said Dennis Bailey, executive director of Casinos No!

Detractors also say neither facility would generate actual new funds, but instead siphon them from existing facilities such as Hollywood Slots in Bangor.

Clossey and others say that’s not true.

“Back in 2007, we did a study which indicated that nearly 80 percent of our patrons would come from Canada, so I believe that we wouldn’t affect the Bangor casino, the Oxford County casino, or Biddeford, Lewiston or any other that comes along,” said Joseph Socobasin, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe. “And I don’t want to quote an exact figure as far as jobs that could come from this, but four years ago, the number that came out of the study was around 150 to 200 jobs that would result from a Washington County facility.”

Just as portions of proceeds from Hollywood Slots go to the state’s agricultural fund, which funds harness racetrack purses, so would percentages of profits from the proposed racinos.

But Bailey said the latest proposal “won’t revive harness racing, and it won’t improve economic development for Biddeford or for Maine. The evidence is crystal clear.”

Ocean Properties, a hotel and resort company based in Portsmouth, N.H., and Scarborough Downs last year outlined their plan to build a new harness racing track with up to 1,500 slot machines on a property not far from the Maine Turnpike. The project also would include a hotel, restaurants and a small entertainment complex.

Tom Varley, senior vice president of Ocean Properties, said the Biddeford racino would create 500 jobs.

“The studies we’ve looked at show this is a strong project that will draw from southern Maine, New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts,” said Varley. “I think it’s proven geographically that Bangor really services the northern part of the state and it’s two different markets. From what we understand, it will have very little impact on the Bangor facility.”

Mainers will vote on two statewide referendums involving gambling on Nov. 8. A separate question on the ballot will ask if voters want to allow a casino with table games and slot machines in Lewiston. Maine has one slots facility in Bangor and a casino is under construction in Oxford.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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