Casino debate catches fire in Maine

Portland, Maine – Despite being on the ballot, a proposal for a casino in the hills of western Maine was dead, for all intents and purposes, up until a few weeks ago when a Las Vegas casino developer arrived with big hopes and a bigger wallet.

Now the airwaves are alive with ads by casino proponents as the state engages in another lively debate over the merits of casino gambling.

Pat LaMarche from Vote Yes on 2 said there’s a lot of ground to be made up by casino supporters in the coming weeks. She said recent surveys showed many Mainers didn’t even realize that there was a casino referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot.

„Before it was dead in the water and no one was taking it seriously. Now, my phone’s ringing off the hook and people are sending in money,“ said Dennis Bailey, executive director of Casinos No! „They’ve ramped it up, and we’re ramping it up too.“

A month ago, the casino campaign was in disarray because of the referendum leader’s legal problems and LaMarche’s decision to quit her job as spokeswoman.

Then came Olympia Gaming. The Las Vegas company purchased a controlling interest in Evergreen Mountain Enterprises from Rumford lawyer Seth Carey, who had run into trouble with the Maine Overseers of the Bar over ethics complaints.

LaMarche was soon back on the job and on Sept. 16 Olympia Gaming announced plans for a USD 150 million casino. Two weeks later, it unveiled an architectural vision for a casino-resort complex that it likens to a charming New England village.

This week, Olympia Gaming plans to announce a location for the casino, should state and local voters give their approval. Finalists are Rumford, Oxford and a third town yet to be identified.

„It’s coming on so fast,“ said Rumford Town Manager Len Greaney, who believes residents are trying to sort out fact from fiction in the campaign.

Supporters say the USD 150 million casino with a 125-bed hotel in its first phase would create 800 jobs and serve as an economic engine in Oxford County. LaMarche said the average casino job would pay USD 12,000 more per year than the USD 24,000 average annual salary in the county. Also, it would bring to state coffers USD 50 million in the first year of operation.

Critics don’t like many aspects of the bill, and neither do its supporters, for that matter. LaMarche said she wishes „that I had a gallon of whiteout“ to fix problems written into the proposal, which cannot be changed at this late stage.

As written, the bill would allow people younger than 21 to gamble and to work in the casino; it would place a 10-year moratorium on competing casinos; and it would put the casino president on a number of boards that benefit from casino revenues. It also would allow the casino to extend credit to gamblers whose money runs out, critics say.

LaMarche said those provisions will need to be changed by the Legislature, but Bailey questions why voters would want to approve a flawed proposal in the first place. „I just think it stretches credibility to say, ‚We don’t like this law, but vote for it anyway,'“ Bailey said.

Then there’s the issue of ownership. Olympia Gaming would have a 75 percent stake in Evergreen Mountain Enterprises. Although Carey wouldn’t have a say in the company, he and about nine others who helped to get the measure on the ballot would own the remaining 25 percent stake.

Critics want to know who these people are. LaMarche said there’s no obligation to name those minority owners because it’s a private company.

In Rumford, birthplace of the proposal, many people are thrilled about the prospect of a casino, which would offer table games as well as slot machines. But people need to know the pluses and minuses, Greaney said.

„We all want jobs. We all want economic development. Maybe this is a great opportunity, but I’d like to understand it a little better,“ the town manager said. He said he hoped LaMarche and Bailey would come to Rumford to „talk turkey“ with residents at a town forum.

The dream of casino gambling has been picking up steam this decade in Maine. In 2003, the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Indian tribes promoted a USD 650 million casino in Sanford.

That measure was defeated at the polls. Instead, voters gave their approval for a race track casino, or racino. That measure required a two-year legislative rework that led to Bangor’s Hollywood Slots complex, which is allowed 1,500 slot machines.

Since then, efforts to expand gambling have failed. Gov. John Baldacci vetoed a Passamaquoddy-backed bill to create a racino in Washington County, and the Maine Legislature rejected a Penobscot-backed bill to allow slot machines on Indian Island.

Last November, voters rejected a referendum that would have allowed the Passamaquoddy tribe to develop a harness racing track with slot machines in Washington County.

Bailey said casinos amount to „economic cannibalism“ by taking money from the economy and putting it in the pockets of casino operators.

LaMarche said the casino would bring money to Oxford County, not siphon it from the local economy. Olympia Gaming hopes to release a detailed economic analysis this week.