Tribal racino: More than just slots, track

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PORTLAND – The racino that the Passamaquoddy Tribe hopes to develop in easternmost Maine would be more than simply a building to house slot machines alongside a commercial harness racetrack.

Planners envision “a destination-type facility” that would include a hotel, conference center, restaurants, gift shops and a high-stakes beano parlor. There’s even talk of developing a docking site in the region that could accommodate 1,500-passenger cruise ships, drawn in part by the gambling operation.

“It’s not the run-of-the-mill slot parlor,” said Fred Moore, the tribe’s former representative to the Legislature and a leader in the Washington County racino effort. He figures the cost will be “in excess of $100 million, probably closer to $150 million.”

The project, billed as an economic lifeline for Maine’s poorest county, cleared a hurdle last week when Maine election officials ruled that the tribe’s initiative petitions contained enough valid signatures to force a statewide referendum.

Unless the Legislature approves the bill and Gov. John Baldacci signs it, the issue would most likely be decided this November, in an off-year election with little else to draw voters to the polls.

Opposition is likely to come from the anti-gambling group Casinos No!, which in 2003 led the successful campaign to squash a proposed $650 million casino project that the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes sought to build in southern Maine.

“We expect to oppose it,” said Dennis Bailey, spokesman for the group. “We’re against the expansion of gambling in Maine.”

Casinos No! is considering whether to challenge Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap’s ruling that racino petitioners had submitted 51,096 valid signatures – a mere 577 above the minimum threshold. Dunlap had rejected close to 18,000 names on various grounds.

Another likely source of opposition is Baldacci, whose earlier veto of racino legislation forced the Passamaquoddy Tribe to take the petition route.

Baldacci’s spokesman, David Farmer, said the governor hasn’t budged from his anti-racino stance, an indication that he would follow through with another veto if lawmakers approve the ribe’s bill. Voters would have the final say.

It would be premature to comment on what role the governor might play in a referendum campaign, Farmer said.

“The governor feels strongly about this, but he’s not looking to lead the effort,” the spokesman said. “Ultimately, this has to be a decision by the people of the state. But he has consistently said that this is not good, sustainable development for Washington County.”

The Passamaquoddys are also promoting a plan for a liquefied natural gas terminal on their Pleasant Point reservation, but tribal sentiment on that project appears more divided than on the racino.

Racino prospects could be affected by an ongoing campaign by the citizens group No Slots for ME!, which is seeking to gather enough signatures to force a vote to outlaw slot machines in Maine.

The owner of Maine’s only slot machine facility, Hollywood Slots in Bangor, has taken no public position on the Washington County project, although Moore claims “they have opposed us behind the scenes.”

Penn National Gaming spokesman Eric Schippers, whose slots parlor stands to lose customers to a tribal facility, declined comment, saying the company’s entire focus was on construction of its permanent site across from Bass Park.

While no specific location for a tribal racino has been selected, Moore identified Calais, site of Maine’s busiest Canadian border checkpoint, as the undisputed front-runner. By law, the racino would have to be within 45 miles of either of its two reservations in the region and at least 100 miles from the Bangor Raceway, the nearest commercial track.

Bailey said he doubts whether a Washington County racino would become a reality, even if the tribe gets its bill approved. No harness tracks are being built these days, he said, and it’s unlikely that the project could get the required financing.

Moore, however, indicated that financing would not be a problem. “We’re having ongoing discussions with a number of sources,” he said.

Stan Bergstein of Harness Tracks of America, an Arizona-based trade group, said new tracks are being built. He pointed to the recent groundbreaking for a track in Minneapolis and the opening of a major track outside Philadelphia.

Still, Bailey doubts that a racino in a rural county with a population of roughly 34,000 would ever get off the drawing board. He foresaw a scenario in which the tribe might then try to shift the project to a more populous area of southern Maine, such as York County, provoking an ever bigger political fight.

Looking ahead to a possible campaign, both sides agree that scheduling the referendum this year, rather than in 2008 when voters will be drawn by the presidential race, offers neither side an advantage.

Political observers agree that off-year referendums, with their low turnouts, favor those who care passionately about an issue. But with opponents of gambling balanced against tribal members and development-minded residents of Washington County, Bailey sees the issue of timing as a wash.

Moore, too, has no preference on when the vote takes place, except the sooner the better.

“I don’t think it matters whether it shows up in a big election year or in an off-year,” he said. “I think it would prevail in either situation.”

AP-ES-01-21-07 1211EST

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