Mainers to vote on Indian-backed track, casino, in poor county

By Glenn Adams
Calais, Maine (AP) 10-07

At a Chinese restaurant within sight of the Canadian border, Tanya McLaughlin doesn’t hesitate when asked whether local people want to see legalized gambling in this economically challenged city of 3,400.

“They want it,” McLaughlin, the head waitress, said emphatically.

The ballot proposal to allow up to 1,500 slot machines at an Indian-run racetrack casino in this eastern community town is a common topic of discussion at Kwong Wah, and two words that McLaughlin hears most often are “business” and “jobs.”

With less than two weeks before the Nov. 6 election, public debate is spreading to the rest of the state on the most provocative question on the Maine ballot: Whether to allow Maine’s Passamaquoddy Tribe to build a destination-style gambling complex featuring slot machines and a harness-racing track.

Supporters have launched a campaign that relies heavily on phone calls, public talks and personal outreach to send a straightforward message: Maine’s easternmost county is struggling economically and wants to lift itself up with a racetrack casino, or “racino.”

“There have been a lot of promises and plans for Washington County, and nothing’s come to fruition,” said William Nicholas, governor of Passmaquoddy Tribe’s Indian Township government.

The tribe is leading the campaign and is prepared to seek additional investors for the complex if voters allow 1,500 slot machines.

The only other place where slot machines are allowed in the state is Bangor, home to Hollywood Slots near the Bangor Raceway. State law currently allows up to 1,500 slot machines only at existing commercial harness-racing tracks.

“We’re not asking for handouts,” said Nicholas, noting that the racino would pump millions of dollars into the state’s economy and earmark part of the revenues for state university and community college scholarships.

By almost any measure, Washington County’s economy is the worst in Maine, a reflection of declines in the seafood and paper industries. The latest blow came this summer when Domtar Corp. in Baileyville announced plans to cut about 150 jobs in a mill that has long been a pillar of the local economy.

A report on poverty by the State Planning Office says Washington County, with a population of less than 34,000 in 2000 had the state’s greatest loss of jobs (462) between 2001 and 2005. The county had the lowest average earnings ($24,909) in 2004, and the highest unemployment rate (8.4 percent) in 2005. It also had the highest food stamp use in early 2006 at nearly 20 percent, while 55 percent of its school children were enrolled in subsidized school lunch programs.

In Calais, which hugs the St. Croix River that forms the border with New Brunswick, downtown blocks are broken up by vacant storefronts.

“There are very few decent job opportunities around here,” said Linda Corey, executive director of the St. Croix Valley Chamber of Commerce, who is marshaling support from other regional chambers to pass the referendum.

Her words are echoed by business owners and residents.

John Marchese, owner of the Calais Motor Inn, said the summer tourist season has shrunk as traffic volumes, especially from Canada, have slowed down over the last few years. Racino backers say there’s nothing to bring back tourists, especially those from Canada.

“The economy needs the racino,” said Marchese.

Not everyone is convinced, including Maine Gov. John Baldacci, who has vetoed bills calling for a Down East racino three times since 2005 and opposed a failed 2003 referendum calling an Indian-run casino complex in the southern Maine city of Sanford.

While he was a state senator, Baldacci supported a bill to authorize the Passamaquoddy Tribe to operate a casino on tribal land in Washington County. But since then his view has changed, and he now says he does not regard gambling as sustainable economic development.

Despite his opposition, the governor has pledged to stay out of this fall’s referendum campaign and to honor the will of the voters.

But there are plenty of other critics willing to speak out.

Philip Harriman, chairman of the Casinos NO! campaign, said casinos are not the economic panacea they are purported to be because they drain money from the local and state economy.

Harriman also says approval of the Down East facility would open Maine’s doors to other gambling proposals that have been floated in other areas of Maine. The Penobscot Indians took a proposal to operate 400 slot machines at their high-stakes bingo facility on Indian Island to lawmakers last spring, and it has been held over for consideration in next year’s session.

If the referendum passes, Harriman warned, “these other promoters are going to come to the Legislature and say, ‘What about us?”’

Another opponent is Leon Gorman, great-grandson of the founder of L.L. Bean and chairman of the board. He says Maine’s character as a clean mecca for outdoor-loving visitors would be tarnished by the presence of another casino.

Casinos NO! also sees lurking shadows of crimes like larceny and embezzlement behind expanded gambling. The group points to figures from the Maine Public Safety Department showing rising crime rates in Bangor, where Penn National Gaming Inc. has a 475-machine slot facility and is building an even bigger one.

Without drawing a direct link between Hollywood Slots and rising crime, the anti-casino group calls the spike “troubling.”

Under plans now envisioned, the Down East racino complex would be situated on 700 acres on which the Passamaquoddies have an option.

The land, which forms a hilly backdrop to Calais’ business district, is covered by birch and evergreen trees and affords scenic views of the St. Croix and Canada.

Nicholas, the tribal governor, said the facility would start with 500 slot machines. He sees a promise for 200-300 jobs at the start, with more to come later.

“This is about fairness,” said Nicholas. “If the city of Bangor can have it, Washington County can have it.” –––

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