BETHEL — The spokesman for an Oxford County casino effort said Wednesday that the group will focus on advocacy for a November ballot question before creating a comprehensive marketing plan.
Peter Martin, representing Black Bear Entertainment LLC, spoke at a presentation hosted by the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce. The group is seeking to establish a four-season resort casino in the town of Oxford. The question will go to a statewide referendum on Nov. 2.
Black Bear Entertainment consists of several local businesspeople. Bob and Gary Bahre, former owners of the Oxford Plains Speedway in Oxford and New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, N.H., announced on Tuesday that they will be investing in the casino effort.
The proposed resort casino would include a 500-seat convention center and 200-room hotel. Martin said the resort would be built over three years, create 800 jobs at the three-year mark, and generate tax revenue for funds including educational and scholarship programs, the Maine Gambling Control Board, and the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes.
Martin said the casino would put $25 million in revenue toward kindergarten through 12th-grade programs and $7 million toward the University of Maine and Maine Community College scholarship funds. He estimated that under a state funding formula that takes into account town valuation and enrollment, SAD 44 would receive $146,000 each year in casino revenues.
Martin estimated that 35 to 45 percent of visitors to the casino would come from out of state. He said casino efforts in other New England states may draw away customers who just want to gamble, since they will be closer. The Massachusetts Legislature has taken steps toward the establishment of two resort casinos, while New Hampshire is considering an expansion of slot machine sites.
Martin said he feels that the convention center will prove to be a large draw. He also said that Maine provides a unique destination for tourists, and that people will be drawn to the casino for other attractions in the area.
“We certainly want to be good neighbors to the people who have businesses in this area, and we are going to try to cross-promote with folks and get people out there,” he said. “We don't want people just coming to the resort, driving there and going home. We want them to experience western Maine.”
Martin said the casino will provide a closer destination for thousands of Maine residents who travel to Foxwoods or other casinos in Connecticut. He said the Oxford casino can also organize such tours from out of state, and do cross-promotions with area attractions such as the Sunday River and Mt. Abram ski resorts. He compared the casino's appeal to that of a baseball game, saying most visitors will be responsible adults who go for to the casino for entertainment and recognize that they may lose money gambling.
Dennis Bailey, spokesman for Casinos No!, disputed the comparison. He said Hollywood Slots, a Bangor gambling facility, has a list of over 100 people who have asked officials to remove them if they enter due to a gambling addiction.
“Casinos create nothing. They create no product. There's a big difference between that and going to the movies or something,” he said. “Show me the baseball park that keeps a list of baseball addicts and keeps them voluntarily from coming into the park.”
Bailey said the economic study Martin has been using does not determine whether revenues generated by the casino would be new dollars or money that tourists would have spent at another location in Maine. He said the casino is also unlikely to succeed unless at least 50 percent of its visitors are out-of-state residents, and that it would not significantly impact the number of people taking trips to Connecticut. Ninety percent of visitors to Hollywood Slots come from Maine, he said.
“There's too much competition,” he said. “Foxwoods is the biggest casino in the world, and we're not going to be Foxwoods.”
Kathleen Jackson, marketing chair with the Service Corps of Retired Executives, said she was concerned that traffic on Route 26 in Oxford might be significantly affected by a casino. Rob Lally, a co-owner of Mt. Abram Ski Resort and partner in the casino effort, responded that the group would add a traffic signal and address any other issues brought up by a traffic study.
“I need to learn more,” said Jackson after the presentation. “I think they haven't done a really thorough marketing plan.”
Carry Engdahl, of the Bethel Area Retirement Committee, supported the casino proposal.
“You have to look at this casino as an economic engine,” he said. “You're talking about replacing one of the bigger mills that disappeared 50 years ago, 40 years ago.”