OXFORD — Joe Casalinova phrases conversation of transforming the farmland encircling the Oxford Casino into an tourist hub with the same themes developers used to pitch to a wary electorate the idea of expanding the state’s list of casinos in 2010.
Local jobs. Community.
“This is a partnership between two families, Thurlow and Casalinova, to complete Evan Thurlow’s dream,” Casalinova said in a recent conversation.
The community-first credo is an homage to the alliance formed between himself and Thurlow Family LLC, the limited-liability company representing the family of landowners who consolidated their properties.
Casalinova recently announced fresh details on plans to develop 92 of the 550 acres managed by the trust into a mixed-retail destination of outlets, restaurants and hotels to members of the Planning Board. Licensing on the project is underway.
This is not the first time Casalinova has talked about their plans, nor are they the first group to do so after the casino’s former owner’s — Black Bear Entertainment LLC — announced similar plans shortly after the casino referendum won by a one-percent margin in 2010.
Instead, it reflects the new source of development; a local business instead of a group of investors, according to Casalinova.
“We picked up that baton and have been working on it feverishly. All of the development commitments have been picked up by the Thurlow and Casalinova families to complete the dream of Evan Thurlow,” he said, referencing the former longtime selectman.
The casino is widely viewed as an economic catalyst driving further commercial expansion. Casalinova’s group is seeking to capture consumer habits — and discretionary money — flowing into the casino in a small radius around it.
The plans date back to at least 2010, when Black Bear announced in the aftermath of the voter referendum a three-phase plan to be rolled out over several years to turn the casino into a resort. The plan called for flanking the casino on either side with hotels — one a boutique 200-room with a spa — an RV park and snowmobile and ATV parking with access to local trails.
The casino was opened in the summer of 2012. In the spring of 2013, it was sold to Churchill Downs for $160 million in cash. A few months later, Casalinova announced its “master plan” for the area, the details ostensibly similar with those announced by its previous owners, with outlet shopping and restaurants added to the mix.
Oxford Casino spokesperson Jane Hoyt made the development situation appear more nuanced than Casalinova’s statements, saying that Churchill Downs was not out of the picture.
“Churchill Downs has not passed the baton to Casalinova Group,” Hoyt wrote in an email.
“There’s not a connection between Churchill Downs Inc. and Casalinova’s plans for developing property close to Oxford Casino. That being said, we are strong supporters of positive economic development and job growth in Oxford and surrounding towns and we certainly wish great success for developers who decide our area is a good investment,” she said.
In a phone interview on Thursday, Churchill Downs spokesperson Courtney Yopp Noris said that because Churchill is a publicly traded company, it can’t reveal much in the way of its investment plans.
However, in a general sense, she said the company evaluates key factors, including the general economy, general business performance and the risk of additional casinos in the market when making it decisions. Earlier this year, it completed a $3.2 million expansion of the gaming floor to bring the number of slot machines to over 850.
“We consider smart ways to look at investing in our properties for the best of our customers,” Yopp Norris said.
The casino generated $71.6 million in net revenue in 2013, according to the Maine Gambling Control Board. This year it is on pace to at least match that tally.
The Legislature-commissioned WhiteSand study suggests that the state’s economy could handle one more casino in southern Maine, and potentially another smaller casino in either Washington or Aroostook county. It estimates the loss in revenue around 20 percent.
Casalinova Development Group commissioned its own study, which suggests the figure is closer to 40 percent.
Whereas in 2010, the casino project had a series of investors who made it possible, the economic development envisioned by the local group — estimated to be in the region of $125 million — is financed solely by bank loans and tax breaks. Nor, according to Casalinova, is his group being paid by Churchill Downs.
“We’re the little engine who could,” he said.
He said that puts more necessary weight on securing credit enhancement agreements with the town so — like the hotel project — it can recoup taxes for infrastructure improvements. To jump-start interest, the buildings being proposed will be leased with the option to buy.
The motto, it seems, is bulwarked by reminders of visionaries of yore. In almost every room in CDG’s King Street headquarters hangs a copy of the Mona Lisa, created by mathematician, painter, engineer and inventor Leonardo da Vinci over 500 years ago.
A black poster in his meeting room is replete with cut-and-pasted motivational adages advising the key to success is getting started, or starting with the end-goal in mind.
That goal, according to Casalinova, is reinventing a small town’s economy.
“I’m hearing from families that people are leaving Maine. We’re putting together packages for good jobs to locate here,” he said. “There’s a human-interest side to this.”
The partnership between Thurlow, which owns the land, and CDG, which provides the permitting and overarching vision aligned roughly the same time Churchill Downs took over the casino.
Crestholm Farm sits across Route 26 from the casino, a blinking yellow light and tens of millions of dollars worth of economic activity differentiating them. Per their arrangement, in the next year, many of the farm buildings will come down to make way for a Hampton Inn.
As part of that plan, Suzanne Hall, who runs the popular farm stand, sold roughly 4 acres to GIRI Hotel Management. The outcome of the retail development will mean the farmhouse she’s lived in since 1970 will come down. Developers will build her another, she said.
They meet about once a month with CDG, Hall said.
“(Casalinova’s) gone above and beyond. He’s worked his heart out,” she said.