INDIAN ISLAND — Penobscot Nation officials are frustrated after five years of failed efforts to modernize entertainment at its three-decade-old high-stakes bingo operation and are exploring legal options to push forward its long-delayed plans.
The tribe wants to put bingo machines in Sockalexis Bingo Palace on Indian Island, a facility that is limited to the same paper-based games it has had for 30 years. In the 21st century, bingo has lost its luster for some gaming patrons, who have moved on to more advanced gaming options, according to the tribe.
“Each year, we have been told, 'Maybe next year,' while each year our bingo revenues continue to decline and we now are at a critical crossroads, threatening the loss of jobs” at a stable employer in the community, Penobscot Nation Tribal Rep. Wayne Mitchell said during his testimony in April before a legislative committee.
The Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Veterans’ and Legal Affairs in mid-May tabled a bill that would have allowed the tribe to operate the machines. Similar efforts have failed to make it out of that committee for the past five years.
The stakes are high in this ongoing effort to have these games approved, according to Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Nation. The bingo hall, which employs 70, isn’t bringing in the money it used to, despite the fact that the average number of gaming tourists has remained steady. Buses bring about 2,800 people from out of state on weekends when the venue is in operation. However, fewer people are playing the more expensive bingo cards or buying pull-tab games. Instead, more patrons are saving their money for when the buses leave Indian Island and head to Hollywood Casino in Bangor to stay in the hotel and play the more entertaining and engaging slot machines, according to Francis.
“We’ve basically been a break-even facility for four years now, and we’ve strongly considered the possibility of having to close at some point,” Francis said. “That’s not being overdramatic; that’s something we’re really going to be faced with down the road if we don’t find a way to stimulate that operation.”
The bingo hall is one of the only economic bastions on Indian Island, which has no retail or hotel offerings, and the loss of the hall would be a hard hit to the tribe, Francis said. The tribe is struggling to improve on its more than 20 percent rate of unemployment.
Both of Maine’s casinos, Hollywood Casino and Oxford Casino, called on the committee to hold back the bill during a public hearing April 3. A pair of May work sessions followed before the bill was tabled. The chairmen of the committee, Sen. John Tuttle, D-York, and Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, did not return interview requests on Friday.
“As it stands now, there is a moratorium on gaming expansion, which was approved last year by the Maine Legislature,” Karen Bailey, spokeswoman for Hollywood Casino’s operator Penn National Gaming, said in an email Friday. “With it, the question of expanding gaming in Maine has been referred to a legislative commission which will consider the feasibility of the licensing of expanded gambling activities. We believe that gaming expansion in Maine should not even be a discussion until the commission and the Legislature complete their work on the issue.”
Daniel Walker, representing Oxford Casino, also cited the moratorium as a reason for the committee to hold back the bill, arguing that the tribes would have a place on that commission and would be able to lobby for the machines there.
However, that moratorium may not apply because the bill does not propose that the Gambling Control Board issue licenses for high-stakes electronic bingo. Also, the commission legislation lays out a directive to develop a competitive bidding process for any future casino or slots facility, but tribes would never be able to compete in those bidding wars, so it would not apply to tribes, Francis argued.
Hollywood Casino General Manager John Osborne conceded during his April 3 testimony that the bill “may not fall within the parameters of the moratorium,” but that the commission has the obligation to study electronic high-stakes bingo as part of its responsibilities.
In his testimony, Osborne calls the Penobscots’ machines “slot machines,” a difference of opinion that adds another complex layer to the debate.
The tribe and state have vastly different views of what these machines are. Francis said the bingo machine games are played as a group, and the display itself has little to do with the game and simply shows a set of predetermined results and mimics the entertainment value that comes with a video-terminal slot machine. Whereas bingo-based machines have a limited number of outcomes, slot machines have infinite results, he said.
Eclipse Gaming Systems, a designer and manufacturer of gaming systems, and BMM Test Labs, an independent gaming compliance and certification company, both certified that the Penobscots’ proposed machines as bingo games earlier this year, pointing out that the internal mechanisms of bingo terminals differentiate them from slot machines.
Lt. Scott Ireland of the Maine State Police, saying the Department of Public Safety was neither for nor against the bill, raised concerns about the bingo machines during an April 3 public hearing on the bill. During an interview Friday, the lieutenant said the proposed games “don’t match up to the legislation.”
Ireland said the machines have a “slotlike appearance,” with tumbling wheels in some games that affect the payout. He said that’s not bingo. There was some discussion on the committee about having this legislation brought back as a slot machine bill, rather than a bingo bill, he said.
The lieutenant said members of the legislative committee and state police went to Indian Island on May 10 to see an online demonstration of the bingo machine. He said they asked to see an actual machine, but were shown only the video. Francis said the machines are still out of state and haven’t been delivered.
Francis said he believes this five-year squabble is about more than disagreement over bingo versus slots.
“They just do not want us to have this technology because they think it mimics slot play — which it does — but we cannot figure out why that’s so unacceptable for us — to have an inferior product [to slots] based on bingo-based games,” Francis said.
The tribe also believes casinos are intervening to avoid competition that might actually help their bottom line. Francis argued that the people who travel to Indian Island also go to Bangor’s casino to take part in table games and slots and stay in hotels before the next day’s gambling, benefiting both Indian Island and the Hollywood Casino.
The chief also expressed frustration with the fact that the Penobscot Nation has been pushing for this change for five years and has made little progress. In those same five years, Hollywood Casino has expanded into its new facility and later added table games, becoming a full-fledged casino, and Oxford Casino was approved and built before the Legislature agreed to a moratorium on future gambling development, Francis pointed out.
Francis said the tribe has been in contact with legal counsel, including national attorneys who specialize in tribal gaming operations.
“I think anyone who looks at this is going to see a level of unfairness, and not just to the tribes, but to others in this industry as well,” Francis said.
“We had a nationally tested product that’s deemed to be bingo play by the technicality of how it operates be totally discredited,” Francis said. “It’s disappointing to see that even when the tribe has everything lined up in a scientific way, the answer is still ‘No.’”