Oxford County mustering for casino fight

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Less than two weeks after the Nov. 4 election, businesspeople, advocates and legislators in Oxford County are quietly sizing up the political climate in an effort to push back momentum for a new casino.

Concern over the potential for a full resort casino in southern Maine, as recommended by a consultant commissioned by the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs, has prompted local efforts to ensure that doesn’t come to fruition.

The $150,000 study by a firm called WhiteSand Gaming concluded that a site in southern Maine near the Interstate 95 corridor could support a large casino resort.

As election results were still being finalized on Nov. 5, the Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce issued a letter to its members outlining efforts to work with legislators to protect the economic stimulus generated by the casino.

The chamber is looking to remind legislators to abide by their own 100-mile buffer zone between casinos.

According to chamber board member Glenn Holmes, without stability, businesses will balk at investing in Oxford, and other parts of the state. 

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“Once laws pass and become entrenched, we need to be careful not to change them because of the next whim,” Holmes said. “There’s been investment in Oxford because the rules are very clear.”

The issue has spurred John Williams, the chamber’s executive director, to join local businesses, politicians and advocates in what he characterized as a county-wide battle for its economic future. While there’s concern, he’s cautiously optimistic.

“There’s no question we’ll still have to prepare for the possibility of legislation being presented,” he said. “If that happens, we’ll be right there telling them, ‘You can’t do this.'” 

He added that the Oxford Casino would “probably have to lay off half their workforce (if a casino is built in southern Maine). If you diminish the casino, it will have an impact on further development.”

Opening in the summer of 2012, the Oxford Casino is widely viewed as the largest economic catalyst in the region, providing tax revenue to the town and county and economic stimulus as business developers vie to create the shops, hotels and dining to accommodate gamblers.

The casino is the town’s biggest taxpayer at more than $400,900, according to town records, contributing nearly three and a half times the combined real estate and personal property taxes of Wal-Mart, the next-highest taxpayer.

The casino is an integral part of the town’s budget and economic future. Up to October this year, the 2 percent of table and slot game revenue had generated for the town $1.24 million and for the county more than $622,000, according to figures from the Maine Gambling Control Board. Casino revenue alone funds roughly a quarter of the town’s expenses.

The casino employs 340 full-time and 64 part-time workers, according to Jane McClay Hoyt, the casino’s advertising and public relations coordinator.

Its economic reach is county-wide, enticing new developers to create jobs, lower taxes and inject stimulus into a rural area whose major manufacturing businesses left decades ago. Developers hope to turn the farmland around the casino into a destination similar to North Conway and Freeport. A hotel is in the works, though uncertainty has created delay.

State Sen. John Patrick, a member of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, said he had not been contacted on his stance, mostly because he’s been an outspoken opponent of building more casinos in Maine. He predicted at least three bills — two from the tribes and one from southern Maine — would surface from colleagues, though he doesn’t expect them to pass beyond his committee. 

“From my standpoint, it would cannibalize existing profits,” Patrick said. “Being a rural representative, I’m going to to what’s in the best interest of rural Maine.”

It was a point on which freshman state Rep. Kathleen Jackson Dillingham agreed.

“My position is still the same: New casino proposals should go through the process and go out to referendum,” Dillingham said. “I know the Legislature has the ability to pass such measures, but I would not support such a bill.” 

While the WhiteSand study found Oxford’s revenues would dip by 20 percent — roughly the percentage taken from Bangor when Oxford opened — with a resort casino in southern Maine, Patrick estimated the figure stood closer to 50 percent. 

“I think it’s good locals are taking this seriously,” he said. “You’ve got to protect what’s yours.”

Casalinova Development Group, which is building a hotel across the street from the casino and has plans to transform the farmland around it into a shopping destination, commissioned its own study assessing the impact of a southern casino. 

Its findings suggest casino expansion amounts to economic regurgitation, or cannibalism, and would drop revenues in Oxford by 41½ to 46 percent because New Hampshire and Massachusetts are likely to open casinos of their own in coming years.

The study, which was conducted by gaming consultants the Innovation Group, was not released in its entirety because it contains proprietary information. 

The Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee is scheduled to meet Friday for a second discussion on the report, though new members won’t be seated until the next legislative session in January.

Holmes, who will be the chamber’s legislative liaison, hopes the county will be represented by at least one legislator on the committee. 

“For me, it’s about, across the board, not changing their rules without reason,” he said. 

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