It looks like Maine voters will again be asked to voice their opinion on a resort and casino in western Maine, after the group proposing the project announced Monday that it collected 99,000 signatures to get the proposal on the November 2010 statewide ballot.
If more than 55,000 of the nearly 100,000 signatures are certified, then Mainers could vote on the matter as early as next fall.
"We figured we'd go after 80,000 signatures and expected it to take about 10 weeks," said Peter Martin, spokesman for Black Bear Entertainment LLC, the group proposing the casino. "We collected 99,000 signatures in 20 days from 500 communities."
Martin said he believed the number of signatures and the time in which they were collected to be a record. He said one of the biggest changes between the previous signature drive and today was an increase in support from affluent coastal communities such Falmouth, Freeport, York and Kennebunk. The communities, which were very vocal in their opposition last time around, were much more supportive now, according to Martin.
Martin credited the change of heart as stemming from the downturn in the economy over the last two years.
"People realize that it's time for Maine to start creating jobs," Martin said. He said residents expressed support for a casino and four-season resort in Oxford County because it would create jobs and boost state revenues.
The anti-gambling group Casinos NO!, on the other hand, criticized organizers for paying a California firm $170,000 to collect signatures.
Martin served as an adviser for the original proposal to build a resort casino in Oxford. The initiative failed at a statewide referendum last year but gained strong support in the town and county. Originally run by a group called Evergreen Mountain Enterprises, the effort was later purchased by Las Vegas-based Olympia Gaming.
Opponents charged that the casino would reduce the state's gambling age from 21 to 19, allow credit to be extended to gamblers, lead to more infrastructure costs and crime, and not draw in significant numbers of tourists.
But under the new proposal amended by Maine legislators, no changes would be made to the gambling age, the president of the casino would not be seated on various boards and oversight committees, credit would not be extended to gamblers, a 10-year moratorium on casino construction would be replaced by a current law separating facilities by at least 100 miles, and the number of slot machines at the casino would be limited to 1,500.
Rupert Grover, an owner of Grover Gundrilling in Norway and member Oxford Economic Development Advisory Committee, said he was pleased with Monday's announcement. Like other backers of the casino effort, Grover believes the project would help to make Western Maine more of a tourist destination.
"I'm very interested in it and I feel that it will give Oxford County a great opportunity for jobs, and that's one thing we need here," Grover said. "And the money generated will go mainly to education."
The latest proposal calls for the casino to be taxed at a rate of 46 percent, of which 25 percent would go toward the state's K-12 Essential Programs and Services; 4 percent each toward the University of Maine Scholarship Fund and the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes; 3 percent each to the Maine Community College System Scholarship Programs and Maine Gambling Control Board; 2 percent to the town of Oxford; 1 percent to Oxford County; and 1 percent each to the state's dairy stabilization, agricultural fair support, sire stakes, and harness racing purse funds.
Martin said that could mean about $32 million annually for the state.