OXFORD — The Oxford County casino referendum passed by a little more than 1 percent early Wednesday afternoon.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, the yes campaign led by about 7,500 votes, according to unofficial tallies.
The referendum found the strongest support in Oxford County, with about 62 percent support. In the town of Oxford, the site of the proposed casino, 66 percent of voters backed it, for a 1,333 to 653 tally, according to results obtained by the Sun Journal.
At Daddy O's restaurant in Oxford, patrons seemed upbeat. Dan and Mary Wilson of South Paris said business has been slow for their plumbing operation. Dan said he expects the casino will spur growth in the area.
“It might not, right at first, but in the long run people will start building around here and I think it will bring some economy to this area,” he said.
Rob Lally, real estate investor, Mt. Abram Ski area co-owner and a member of the Black Bear Entertainment group, waited until nearly every precinct had reported before declaring the referendum had passed.
"We can claim victory when we get those jobs here in Maine," he said.
Lally said finding the right site is the next step. He said the group has a couple of sites in mind, but there are safety, traffic and environmental concerns with getting the right location. The site will "absolutely" be on Route 26, he said.
Beyond that, Lally said is finding a casino management that will allow the Black Bear Entertainment investors to retain control of the casino. "The control and the Maine ownership is not going away."
In Norway, Scott and Zizi Vlaun of the Oxford Hills No on 1 campaign were picking up road signs Wednesday. “It looks like we lost a close race, even though we were outspent 600-to-1,” Scott Vlaun said.
“It's just tragic that our system works in such a way that money speaks louder than the truth,” he said.
Zizi Vlaun said that with the amount of money casino proponents spent, it could have been a landslide.
Dennis Bailey, executive director for CasinosNo!, agreed that casino proponents had far overspent opponents.
“I think it's a shame that $10 million was spent on a campaign to conclude that Maine people are split on this issue,” he said.
He said the group might request a recount if the final difference is less than 1 percent.
According to Dan Cashman, spokesman for Citizens Against the Oxford Casino, the referendum was so close that a recount may be necessary.
“We owe it to ourselves and the voters to at least explore that possibility,” he said.
Cashman credited the level of support for the referendum to both the economy and to the success of Hollywood Slots. “We have a gaming facility in Maine that's operated very well,” he said.
He said that a provision of the casino proposal that bars table games such as blackjack within 100 miles of the proposed casino site was a point of contention for the coalition behind Citizens Against the Oxford Casino, which includes Hollywood Slots owner Penn National and the Maine Harness Horsemen's Association.
Hollywood Slots is 95 miles from Oxford.
In Penobscot County, home to Hollywood Slots, 57 percent of voters rejected the measure. Opposition was strongest in Washington County, with 70 percent against the casino.
The initiative dictates that 16 percent of net table game income and 46 percent of slot machine income will go to the state. That money is then further divided to various state agencies that must receive funding, including the Maine Department of Education, the Agricultural Fair Support Fund and the Gambling Control Board.
Staff Writer Christopher Williams contributed to this report.