Maine gaming initiative defeated, racino alternatives eyed

By Glenn Adams
Augusta, Maine (AP) 11-07

With a Washington County Indian racino proposal rejected at the polls, it’s time to look at new approaches to buoying the Down East region’s fragile economy, racino opponents and some of its supporters said Wednesday.

“It’s disappointing, but we need to stay positive and move forward with economic development,” said Diane Bowers, city manager in Calais, where 80 percent of the voters supported the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s proposal for a harness racing and slots complex.

Unofficial returns from 99 percent of Maine’s precincts showed the initiative losing by nearly 5 percentage points.

“There are a lot of heavy hearts in Washington County today,” state Sen. Kevin Raye, a leading proponent of the tribe’s plan, said Wednesday. “There was a sense that the racino campaign offered a real opportunity to change the economic dynamic of Washington County.”

Despite the loss, Passamaquoddy Lt. Gov. Joseph Socobasin said gaming supporters “aren’t going away,” although there will likely be a pause of a year or two before they come back with a new proposal.

Raye, R-Perry, believes it’s too early to count any strategy in or out, saying, “We will need some time for the whole issue to sort out.” Raye said he’s glad the referendum focused attention on the county’s economic distress, but said the time for studies is over.

“The problem is we’ve been studied to death,” said Raye, R-Perry. “We need action.”

Others on both sides of the issue said the vote shows it’s time to look beyond gambling to restore vitality to Washington County’s economy, which is marked by high unemployment, low earnings by residents and major job losses.

Maine House Speaker Glenn Cummings, who opposed previous gambling initiatives but supported the latest measure, said Tuesday’s outcome was “very conclusive.” Now, the Portland Democrat said, the Legislature needs to look at alternatives.

“The need doesn’t go away simply because the racino was defeated,” said Cummings, who believes one approach could be offering residents of Washington County free tuition to its community college.

Casinos NO! Chairman Philip Harriman said voters spoke clearly even though the opposing side spent far more money to get its pro-racino message across. He agreed that the vote intensifies the focus on helping Washington County.

“There’s no reason to celebrate,” said Harriman. “We would hope that legislative leaders and the governor will see this as an opportunity for another agenda for economic development.”

One possibility, Harriman said, is development of an east-west toll highway from Calais to Coburn Gore as proposed in August by Peter Vigue, president and CEO of Cianbro Corp. Another is declaring all of Washington County a Pine Tree Zone so businesses are offered incentives to locate there. Deep-water port development is another possibility, Harriman added.

Casinos NO! issued a statement proposing that the tribes join with it to “once and for all get rid of all slot machines in Maine” and “move forward on real economic development opportunities for all of Maine.” Raye dismissed the offer as “cynical.”

Gov. John Baldacci, acknowledging Washington County residents’ disappointment, promised to work with local leaders on “sustainable economic development.”

“I hope that this vote will allow us to move forward and work together cooperatively for a strong economy not only in Washington County but in the entire state,” the governor said in a statement. While Baldacci opposes gambling and has vetoed three racino bills since 2005, he did not speak out on the issue during this fall’s campaign.

Maine voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal for an Indian-run casino in southern Maine in the fall 2003 election, but at the same time approved slots at harness race tracks. Penn National Gaming Inc., runs Hollywood Slots near Bangor’s harness race track.

The latest proposal sought to double to 3,000 the number of slot machines allowed in the state.