Big Money

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The first six months at the state’s first casino in two words: Ca-ching.

BANGOR -It’s just after lunch and a crowd’s gathered around a frail, older woman who’s hitting it big.

She’s in the thousands – thousands of nickels. No one’s done the math, but it’s a lot. A dozen strangers at her elbow hang on every electronic roll.

The game is Double Dolphins, and it’s hard to see the point, except matching letter Ks looks like a good thing.

Rumor quickly spreads she just won $750 on this same machine minutes before.

“C’mon, yeah! C’mon, yeah!” she hollers. The machine blinks, tweaks and spins. She’s clapping so hard her watch flings off her tiny wrist. “We’re so jealous, we are!” croons a woman next to her.

When the game stops, anxious minutes and rolls later, she’s won $475.35.

Maybe that sounded more impressive in thousands of nickels, but she’s ecstatic, waiving her little arms, beaming. Strangers wander back to their own maybe-lucky machines.

A little early-afternoon excitement at Hollywood Slots, where everyone wants to hit it big.

Since November, more than 200,000 people have come through the door of Maine’s first casino.

They’ve gambled, on average, more than $1 million a day – big money in a state that’s not completely sold on slot machines.

From his view behind the counter at the Mobil station one block up Main Street, clerk Ray Cummings can watch Hollywood Slots’ new shuttle ferry people back and forth from an overflow parking lot, a sign that 230 spaces outside the renovated restaurant are filled.

That happens quite a bit.

“It’s just like YMCA – they’ll cheerfully accept your money,” said Cummings, who, by chance, lived in Las Vegas for 23 years. “You just have to be careful, that’s all. You can really get hooked there if you want to.”

Jon Johnson, Hollywood Slots general manager, told legislators last month that three customers have asked to be banned because of gambling problems.

It’s had a few other growing pains.

Players have groused about the number of free drinks (zero.) They’ve complained that without the clank of real coins dropping out of the machines, which are all cash-in, ticket-out, jackpots just aren’t noisy enough.

The state had to rethink an edict that behind-the-scenes money be kept in metal cash boxes. Turns out, no one makes metal cash boxes anymore.

Also turns out there’s not enough room in this temporary location for the Hollywood paraphernalia that’s supposed to play off the casino’s name.

The motorcycle from “Easy Rider” is out. A Robert DeNiro trench coat and handful of “Batman” bat-cessories are in.

“As you can tell, our numbers are improving every month,” said Johnson, on a recent tour. “We opened up with the right idea: provide a clean, safe, secure place to play. Offer high levels of customer service and people will enjoy that.”

By all signs, they keep coming in droves.

Showing the money

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From a November low of $28.5 million to a March high of $45.8 million, money played in the slots keeps growing each month.

Bob Welch, executive director of the state Gambling Control Board, cautions it hasn’t been all “brand-new million dollars” – that count includes tokens, vouchers from previous wins and cash.

In March, Hollywood Slots saw $45.8 million played and $42.8 million returned to customers like the excited, elderly nickel winner. The state took $458,193 in taxes and split another $1 million between 10 different groups.

Horsemen get the biggest chunk of that split, and so far, they’re happy about the extra prize money and still sore about the location. The casino, initially envisioned as a trackside racino, is located about three blocks away from Bangor Historic Track. (See related story)

Maine voters approved the slot-only Hollywood Slots’ concept back in 2003.

Early predictions that a casino here would attract crime, underworld elements or cheats haven’t come true, at least these first six months, Welch said.

For all the crowds, there’s been nary a pinched wallet.

“The bottom line is everything is very quiet,” Welch said. “We were expecting to hear one or two patron complaints a week: ‘Gee, that machine isn’t paying much.’ We haven’t had one of those.”

He gets regular bulletins from an international casino network with the surveillance shots of people caught cheating the house. None of those faces have popped up in Bangor.

It’s a plus that many of the Vegas slot scams don’t translate, according to Welch.

Since Maine machines operate on paper tickets, not change, machines don’t have a gaping slot for coins to rush out. That’s typically the hole crooks use to insert something up the machine and rig the works.

Two state troopers assigned to his unit haven’t investigated any criminal complaints at Hollywood Slots.

Bangor police Deputy Chief Peter Arno said his officers have responded to a few accidents in the parking lot and tossed a few people who drank too much.

Back in January, a Trenton man did allegedly admit to police he’d stolen $23,000 from a convenience store and lost it at the slots.

Johnson’s skeptical. He said someone betting that much money, someone on his staff would have noticed.

Loud colors, not so loud wins

Slot players have, so far, tended to be 50-year-old-plus women, Johnson said. There’s a current push to sign more people up for Hollywood Slots’ player’s club, a card that offers free perks in exchange for demographic information.

“It helps us know who our players are,” he said. “They probably don’t like Metallica. Probably the wrong promotion to have would be the Tropicana bikini girls.”

What they do gravitate to are reel machines, with actual wheels that spin, versus the computerized screens. A surprising demand for video poker had the company swapping out 20 slots for 20 poker machines this winter.

Players can bet as little as 2 cents and as much as $5 on one pull. About the highest jackpot so far – $30,030 – went to a man playing $1 a game.

“We had a player hit a $21,000 jackpot on a nickel game,” Johnson said. “We had a lady hit two $10,000 jackpots within 20 minutes of each other, so you never know.”

Early this spring, Johnson said the Legislature asked the casino how many people worked there, their benefits and how much business Hollywood Slots did with local vendors.

The answers: 130 full-time employees have health insurance with a $66-a-month co-pay. Most of the staff have average pay of $9.30 an hour. (Three executives earn $100,000-plus.)

From set-up last June to the close of the year, the company spent $6 million locally, the bulk for goods and services. In general, Bangor hotel stays and restaurant revenue are also up.

Across the street at the McDonald’s, an employee named Randy, who declined to give his last name, said business has increased since November. He thinks he can spot a slot player by the loud clothes.

“Lucky jackets, lucky hats, that sort of stuff,” he said, hanging out in the parking lot after a day-long shift.

Randy has played there once with his wife, $20 on a nickel machine.

“I won $250 and walked out,” he said. “The fact that you can’t smoke (in there) sucks.”

He has a few safety concerns. In this same spot the week before he watched someone crossing the street get hit by a car. There’s no crosswalk. The street was closed while ambulances responded.

The permanent facility for Hollywood Slots is on track to open across from the Mobil and a few doors down from McDonald’s in mid-2008.

In the plans: a 1,500-car parking garage, two in-house restaurants, an entertainment lounge, a new off-track betting facility, retail store and 1,000 of the 1,500 slots allowed by state law.

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