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.
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.