Residents of Route 26 weigh pros and cons of Oxford casino

OXFORD — One of the many signs urging a yes vote on the upcoming ballot question on a casino sits planted in the shoulder along Route 26.

Question 1 signs
Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Both yes and no signs line Route 26 in the Oxford area, including these at the entrance to Walmart.

The players behind the Oxford casino proposal

Bob and Gary Bahre

Former owners of the New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, N.H. Bob also owned and operated Oxford Plains Speedway from 1964 to 1986.

The Bahres sold NHIS to Speedway Motorsports Inc. in January 2008. The company retained Bob Bahre as a consultant.

Stephen Barber

Barber is the former president and CEO of Barber Foods. He has done business in Maine for more than 50 years.

Jim Boldebook

Boldebook is the founder of Creative Broadcast Concepts in Biddeford. The company employs 30 people at its Biddeford headquarters.

Rupert and Suzanne Grover

The Grovers are founders and board members of Grover Gundrilling Inc., established in 1983 in Norway. The high-tech specialty drilling company has attracted business clients from all over the world. The Grovers also founded and built Boxberry School in Oxford.

Robert W. Lally Jr.

Lally has worked for Tedeschi Realty Corp., a family-owned-and-operated real estate company.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

Dan Cashman of Citizens Against Oxford Casino.

Opinions on Question 1
Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Edna and Paul Mckinnon

Opinions on Question 1
Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Amanda Ouellette of Mechanic Falls

Opinions on Question 1
Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Dorothy Reny of Gray

Opinions on Question 1
Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Cyndi Robbins

Opinions on Question 1
Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Anne Carter of Oxford

Opinions on Question 1
Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Conner Linwood of Sabattus

Bright blue with white letters in a red box, it urges, "Take Charge Now! — Yes on 1."

Just 100 yards or so away stands the hulking and desolate Burlington Homes factory, a place that once employed hundreds of people making mobile and modular homes.

The campaign sign in front of the vacant factory provides a fitting juxtaposition for what's been on the minds of voters who live and work along Route 26 from Gray to Norway.

Not a mile from the now-defunct factory, Anne Carter is tending to her farm stand and getting in order the cross-country ski shop she owns with her husband, David.

"I don't think gamblers are really cross-country skiers," Carter says wistfully. "So I don't think we would be seeing much business from them." Still, she says more traffic on the highway usually means more people stopping, either for the skiing or the farm stand.

Carter says she doesn't know yet how she will vote. She can see both pros and cons of a resort-style casino being built up the road. 

Carter wonders, though, what a casino in the neighborhood would do to her and others' property values. "Do property values go up with a casino? Do they go down?" she asks. "Those are the kinds of things I'm concerned with."

Another question on Carter's mind: Will the costs of increased services the town has to provide to a large business, like a casino, be balanced by the property taxes a casino would pay?

But Carter says she also knows thousands of Mainers spend millions of dollars each year gambling.

"They are leaving the state now to go gambling," she says. "So, on the other side you can understand why we might want to keep that money here."

Money and jobs

That money — some estimates show it to be as much as $200 million — casino supporters argue, would help create jobs, employ local people and boost the region's flagging economy.

Oxford Town Manager Michael Chammings believes the loss of manufacturing and agricultural jobs has largely left Maine in the business of catering to tourists.

He wants the casino project.

"We're Vacationland," Chammings said, referencing the state's license-plate motto during a recent forum in South Portland hosted by the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce. "Let's make some destinations in this state."

The scrutiny the proposed $165 million casino project has endured seems illogical to him, Chammings said.

"I've never seen a big economic development project nitpicked so much," he said. "If we all did that looking for a spouse, we would all be lonely. We certainly need the jobs."

Hovering just above 10 percent, the town and surrounding Oxford County have among the highest unemployment rates in the state.

Back out on Route 26, Amanda Ouellette is busy with the lunch-hour rush at Daddy-O's, the diner she owns and operates with her husband, Aaron.

Less than a half-mile from Oxford Plains Speedway, the diner serves American fare — burgers, fries, onion rings and so on. It is decorated with Coca-Cola memorabilia and old Coke vending machines. License plates from around the world hang on the walls.

The couple employs about 12 full-time workers year-round. Ouellette says she and her husband support a yes vote on the casino.

"Strictly from a business standpoint, we think it could be a good thing," she says. Her customers are largely local, she says, but she believes more traffic would mean more business.

They experienced it when the town hosted the Nateva Music Festival last July Fourth weekend. Ouellette said they were as busy as they had ever been the Monday following the festival weekend. "That Monday will be forever known as Nateva Monday," she said, laughing.

The five-year plan to build the resort in phases would also add to her daily customer tally, she said.

"Definitely, during the construction phase, we would hope to see more business," she said, "but just generally speaking, it would bring more people into the area."

Natives of Auburn and Mechanic Falls, the Ouellettes moved back to Maine to raise their children closer to family, after living out of state for awhile. She doesn't worry that a casino would dramatically change the area.

"It will definitely change the dynamic, for sure, but it's hard to say how," she says. "We are willing to give it a try." Ouellette says having too many customers is a good thing. "We would adapt," she says. "There's another whole acre out there we can expand to."

Keep gamblers in-state

Near the other end of Route 26, at a barber shop in Gray, Faith Brautigam has just finished with a customer's hair. Brautigam says she will vote for the casino, too.

She doesn't think it will help her business, particularly beyond an occasional vacationer getting a haircut they couldn't get before they headed to Maine.

Still, she says, if people want a casino and a group of Maine businesspeople are willing to own and operate one, they should be given the chance. 

"I'm going to vote they can have it," Brautigam says. "We keep getting the same question, so eventually, I figure, it's going to pass."

Not far from Brautigam's shop, Dorothy Reny is arranging apples at a farm stand on Route 26 in Gray. Reny says she, too, will vote for the casino. Like Brautigam, she doesn't gamble but thinks the casino could help lower taxes in Maine.

And many people in Maine enjoy gambling and games of chance for entertainment, she says. Keeping any of that spending in-state would be a good thing.

Farther up the road in Poland, Linwood Conner is waiting for friends before a round of golf at Poland Springs Resort. Conner says he makes an occasional trip to the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut and that he is going to Hollywood Slots in Bangor in the next few days.

A Central Maine Power Co. retiree who lives in Sabattus, Conner says he's undecided on how he will vote on the Oxford casino question.

"I may save my vote for the Lewiston one," Conner says. "I think that would be a bigger benefit for Sabattus."

Cindy Robbins, the owner of the Poland Spring Resort, says she's supporting a yes vote on the casino in Oxford. A big part of her support is based on who the potential owners of the casino would be.

The owner group includes current and former Maine businesspeople who all have successful track records, are well-respected in the business community and are committed to seeing the project through, Robbins says.

She says the proposal is different from previous ones that were largely bankrolled by out-of-state interests, including investors from Las Vegas.

Her resort, which includes hotel and inn lodging, a golf course and two restaurants, hires about 130 seasonal workers each year and has a full-time, year-round staff of about 25. This year, she had more than 600 people apply for seasonal work, Robbins says.

"This area is just hurting for jobs, all kinds of jobs," Robbins says. 

The promise of 2,700 new jobs in the region is a sweet enticement, but some opponents argue the jobs won't all be new, and in a worst-case scenario, they will simply be jobs displaced from some other part of the state.

Chief opponents including the political action committee, Citizens Against the Oxford Casino, say the jobs figure being promoted by the pro-casino group Maine Taxpayers Taking Charge is being distorted. The number of jobs that will be high-quality, with benefits and good pay, is also in question, opponents argue.

Citizens Against the Oxford Casino includes Penn National, the parent company of Hollywood Slots; the Maine Association of Agricultural Fairs; the Maine Standardbred Breeders & Owners Association; the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association; the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township; and the Greater Bangor Convention and Visitors Bureau. All are beneficiaries, in part, of Hollywood Slots.

Dan Cashman, a spokesman for the PAC, believes the legislation that sets up the Oxford casino is simply unfair.

"This group is not against the expansion of gaming," Cashman says. "They are not opposed to competition; it's just the unfair competition."

The PAC's activities have been fully funded by Hollywood Slots and Penn National, Cashman says, but he insists the coalition is more than just the company funding it. "They all have different roles to play and theirs is funding," he says.

The coalition opposes an Oxford casino provision that sets up 100-mile exclusion zone and believes the proposed taxing structure is unfair.

The proposal, as drafted, would see the Oxford casino paying about 46 percent of its income to taxes. Hollywood Slots pays about 49 percent of its income in taxes.

Also, Oxford would be allowed table games and Hollywood Slots is not allowed table games. That gives the Oxford casino another unfair advantage, Cashman says.

"It just an unfair way of doing business," Cashman told the Sun Journal editorial board on Friday. He said the legislation includes a loophole that allows the Oxford casino to lower its tax rate further.

If any of the groups that benefit from the tax distribution under the legislation setting up the Oxford casino receive funding from another casino operation, that would drop the Oxford casino's tax obligation to as low as 40 percent.

Other opponents in Maine include CasinosNo!, a PAC headed by Dennis Bailey, which has opposed all recent casino proposals in Maine. Bailey and his backers believe casinos are not a form of economic development, that they create more problems than they solve and that they hurt Maine's reputation and image.

During the Portland forum earlier last week, Bailey said other places around the country that have casinos, including Mississippi, Las Vegas and Atlantic City, are seeing higher unemployment rates.

"Many of the places that brought in casinos to solve unemployment problems now have more unemployment," Bailey says. "This is not a destination casino; this is a desperation casino."

Another issue for Bailey is that crime goes up in places with casinos, he says, but connecting increased crime directly to a specific casino is difficult because it's often crime that results from people losing their money at a casino.

"It's insidious and it's invisible," Bailey says. For example, he says, a domestic violence incident could arise from a husband gambling away his paycheck and then getting into a fight with his wife over it.

"If we are going to call casinos economic development, we might as well call prostitution marriage counseling," Bailey says.

sthistle@sunjournal.com

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Comments

Brent Gammon's picture

A no vote for Oxford, means a no vote for Lewiston

If you vote no for Oxford and it fails, what makes you think people will vote yes for Lewiston. I think a lot of people who oppose casinos, would not be so outspoken if there was already a full casino nearby. And if Oxford fails, I'm sure a lot of angry voters would vote no on Lewiston out of spite. I'm not saying it's right, but that's the way it is.

 's picture

You claim Mendros worked for

You claim Mendros worked for Black Bear where is your source? Or is that just another lie. There is nothing in the PAC report. They hired the California firm, National Petition Management.

 's picture

no you cannot vote for both

the proposed law that will allow for the Oxford casino stops the construction of any other casinos in southern Maine. its yes to our and only our casino or no casino in oxford.

Not so fast

I'd be perfectly content with an admission that a site has been found, and a purchase and sale agreement signed, but that addition information cannot be disclosed, due to terms and conditions, such as a final sale being contingent on the outcome of the November 2 vote.

But that's NOT what happened.

What happened is that Bob Bahre said deal was signed for a lot. His partners in Black Bear Entertainment then came back and said, no, there has been no deal. In fact, they claimed, it was premature to even pick a site, let alone sign a deal on one.

Well, if that's all true, then either Bob is a liar, or his partners are. Moreover, if his partners are to be believed, they've invested bags of cash on pushing a development deal that, two weeks out, still has no site selected. Taking a pretty big chance, don't you think, on the vote going their way but nobody in the allowable area being willing to sell them the needed property?

Again, the preponderance of evidence seems to indicate that Black Bear Entertainment has something to hide. Personally, I'm not willing to take a chance on being sprung with any post-Election Day surprises.

As requested

From the Sun Journal
Oxford casino site chosen
By Leslie H. Dixon, Staff Writer
Published Oct 01, 2010

PARIS — Investors in the proposed $184 million casino and resort have signed an option for land in Oxford, one of them said Thursday night.
“It's over 100 acres. It's a beautiful piece of land,” investor Bob Bahre told the Sun Journal after the public informational meeting on the proposed development.

Bahre, one of the investors with casino developer Black Bear Entertainment, said a deposit has been made on the property and will be forfeited after 30 days if the statewide vote on Nov. 2 to allow the casino fails.

From the Advertiser Dmocrat
OPS is not Casino Site, Says Owner
by Matt Hongoltz-Hetling
Published Oct 07, 2010

The actual casino location remains undisclosed, although Bob Bahre told the Sun Journal last week that an option had been signed for a parcel of land in excess of 100 acres. Take Charge Maine spokesperson Randy Seaver says that this is not the case. “The [sic] the best of my knowledge, it is not down to one site,” said Seaver. “We're not going to put the cart before the horse.” After the November vote, said Seaver, “we'll present out [sic] ideal site to the town.” Oxford Town Manager Michael Chammings has declined to release the location of the casino, citing an economic development exception to freedom of information laws.

Right back atcha dipnard

My, what fine rhetorical skills you have. Obviously, on par with your reading comprehension.

Eddie said there must be an option, although he's decided a signed option is not "a deal." The person interviewed by the Advertiser said there's been no deal, no option, and not even so much as a final site selection.

So, kinda the opposite.

"Loser."

Desperation breeds bad deals

The problem with casinos is that, unlike a manufacturing facility, such as the Grover’s gundrilling shop, they do not create anything. As such, they do not produce wealth. Instead, they merely push around wealth which already exists within the economy.

Surely, a casino will bring some nominal economic benefit to the Oxford Hills, but, on a macroeconomic level, casinos are poor development tools. The time to build one is when the economy is at a peak, and people have money to spend, not when it’s languishing in a deep valley and the public is willing to do anything for a few service-sector jobs.

Desperation is a bad environment for decent decision making. Already, we have seen some questionable activity logged on behalf of the casino group. Very little has been asked by the Sun Journal about the seeming secret, sweetheart deal to buy the harness racing track at the Oxford Fairgrounds. When queried on why they need to own the facility, casino investors, speaking though a mouthpiece, will only say, “It’s required in the bill.” But THEY wrote the bill, so the question stands, why is it in there? Does Hollywood Slots own the Bangor Raceway?

For years, Suzanne Grover pleaded with businesses and individuals in the Oxford Hills to give their money to track construction, “for the good of the community.” Now that it’s been built into what, by all accounts, is a first-class facility, she gets own it? Really? And would that sale have gone through had Grover not been president of the Oxford Fair, as well as a casino investor?

Because of the secrecy – indeed, the initial denials – that’s accompanied the sale, one can only presume that it’s a control issue. Perhaps Grover, having taken the brunt of ill-feelings, and accusations of financial mismanagement, from fair folks she’s shunted aside over the years, wants to own the track, in case she ever is ousted from the fair board? Who’s to say? Grover has done a lot for the Oxford Hills – that goes without question – but until she steps forward to answer questions, we can only speculate about her motivations. The behavior that has accompanied this casino deal necessarily calls those motivations into question.

Uncommon recalcitrance on the part of Black Bear Entertainment also leaves us to speculate in other areas. Where will the casino be built? Who will manage it? We don’t know. BBE won’t say.

Should we, out of desperation for jobs, simply vote for the casino and trust in the good intentions of its investors? Does the secrecy over the track sale make these folks seem more, or less, worthy of our trust? How about the environmental damage done in the name of Grover’s other fair-related brainchild, the Live Nation concert stage? Does that make it seem more, or less, likely that she will play a proper managerial hand in construction of a casino?

And lastly, I leave you with this: The possible location of the casino.

Because of Bob Bahre’s late involvement, there has been much rumor-mongering claiming the casino might be built on the grounds of Oxford Plains Speedway. But keep in mind, Bahre also owns a 40-acre lot adjacent to the Oxford Fairgrounds, where he once hoped to build a Lowe’s. Is the secrecy surrounding the casino location due to the fact that it will be built partly on this site, and partly on the grounds of the fair? How are we to know whether, like the sale of the horse track, a deal has already been agreed to under the table, or that Grover won’t seek to push one through after the vote, with the current fair board cow-towing to her demands?

Casinos are poor development tools, but folks should be free to waste money building them, just as they should be free to waste money frequenting them. However, this particular deal is too much of a gamble. The last Oxford casino was a hot mess, but at least everything relating to its development was on the table, where it could be addressed. This deal simply seems enshrouded in too much secrecy.

When questions are asked about a developer’s intentions, and the answer amounts to little more than, “Trust us,” the vote must be, “No.”

Why does everyone think that

Why does everyone think that anyone with money is going to come to a rinky-dink backwoods town that has a two-bit casino when all the big ones (think Las Vegas) are doing so terribly?
Las Vegas, Foxwoods and other big casinos have been laying off people in mass groups. They're the ones people go to-not some two bit, middling operation in a state better known for LL Bean and lobsters.
Vote against it, because it goes against all economic common sense and will probably fail within 5 years.
The money they're quoting is not going to materialize and what's more, it will disappear to out of state concerns. We'll get bits and pieces, not the whole pie.
The jobs will be low-paying service jobs. The game managers will be from out of state because they're trained to run the games-they're going to be the only ones who get the real money, and they'll be fewer than 100 people.
Don't believe everything you read. Lies come in all shapes and sizes. This is just another lie wrapped in the mantra of "Jobs".

PAUL MATTSON's picture

VOTE YES ON 1 ~ EARLY AND

VOTE YES ON 1 ~ EARLY AND OFTEN!

 's picture

YES YES

REMEMBER ALL PERSONS OUT OF WORK .ALL THE ONES THAT SAY NO ARE EITHER VERY WEALTHY OR WORKING AND DO NOT CARE ABOUT YOU PEOPLE LOOKING FOR WORK.SO VOTE YES YES YES

Kimber Murphy-Hunt's picture

Not necessarily true.

While I agree that there are many out of work, I plan to vote no... but it's because I want the casino in Lewiston. It's not that I don't care about the Oxford Hills area... I just feel compelled to support the community I live closer to. Other folks from this area may feel differently... they may be compelled to vote FOR the Oxford casino to keep it AWAY from Lewiston... We won't really know until all the chips are down, though, will we?

Kimber Murphy-Hunt's picture

How many casinos can the area support?

It's just my opinion. I offered it respectfully.

I would also like to point out, that the Oxford casino referendum has a clause that disallows another casino from opening within a 100 mile radius of Oxford. While some folks can say that "this language can be addressed in a year," I would sooner believe the Lewiston proposal will be shot down if the Oxford deal goes through.

We each have a vote. I'm going to vote the way I want to... and you should vote the way you want to. Ultimately, the majority will rule. If the casino ends up in Oxford, that's great... if it doesn't, then Lewiston may have a chance at being something other than a stinky armpit for the rest of eternity.

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