Players bet more than $1 billion at Maine’s two casinos last year. No wonder three more venues are pushing to get in the game. But how much is too much?

Newcomer Oxford Casino, without a hotel or amenities except a restaurant with a $5 burger night, saw more than half of that action.

With numbers like that, other companies want in.

The rhetoric is high and so are the stakes, for the casinos and for Maine.

It’s a casino arms race, one analyst told the Legislature: “The question faced by Maine is, ‘Do you want to enter this war armed with a basket of 22-caliber pistols or do you want to defend your market with … B-22 bombers?'”

Scarborough Downs says if it doesn’t get expanded gaming, this year is likely the end. There will be no more track, period, leaving jobs and thousands of acres of farmland in jeopardy.

And whatever Scarborough’s future, Massachusetts and New Hampshire casinos are likely soon to come knocking.

Meanwhile, Maine lawmakers this winter are fielding requests to build two more casinos and one slots parlor and weighing larger issues such as whether licensing fees should skyrocket from the $225,000 each paid by Oxford Casino and Hollywood Casino to north of $100 million for the next one.

The state’s cut of that gambled $1.1 billion in 2013? More than $51 million shared by the General Fund, schools and a dozen other groups.

Approving more casinos could either double that or decimate it, depending on whom you talk to.

“There is simply no question that given the green light by state legislators and promoters, marginal operators will continue to join the casino arms race to the point of mutually assured destruction,” said Clyde Barrow, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, lobbying on behalf of Oxford’s owner, Churchill Downs, which is vehemently opposed to new development in southern Maine.

In short: If Scarborough Downs is approved, it will be a hardship for Oxford and little net gain for the state because a Downs casino would draw nearly all of its customers from the casinos in Oxford and Bangor, according to Barrow’s projections.

But not so, says Scarborough. And so what if some customers pick it over Oxford?

“Generally, the way America works is, we think you’d be better off if you’re worried that someone else is going to work harder and longer and better than you, and that will be your motivation,” said Ed MacColl, an attorney for the Scarborough racetrack.

Its development partner, Ocean Properties, has projected: “A new facility in southern Maine would more than double Maine’s total gaming revenue for the state.”

By the numbers

Hollywood Casino — then Hollywood Slots — opened in November 2005, Oxford Casino in June 2012, both the result of citizen-initiated, statewide referendums. There are no current casino questions in the referendum pipeline, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. Approval in the Legislature for the next one or more would cut short the need for expensive, uncertain statewide campaigns.

According to monthly reports filed with the Maine Gambling Control Board, customers wagered $468 million at Hollywood Casino and an estimated $700 million at Oxford Casino on slot machines in 2013. (Official tallies for Oxford won’t be released until next month along with the taxable revenue seen from table games, which amounted to $13 million for both casinos, combined, in 2012.)

In many ways, it’s a giant redistribution of wealth with the house taking a cut: Gamblers won back $421.7 million at Hollywood and an estimated $600 million-plus at Oxford.

Michael Allen, associate commissioner for tax policy at Maine Revenue Services, said it’s difficult to get an exact read on what some people are choosing the casinos over. His guess is they’re playing poker and slots “at the expense of other entertainment, and since most entertainment services are not taxable, it may not impact sales tax receipts all that much.”

Neither Oxford nor Hollywood shared details of their customer base when asked, but reports and memos to the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee and its Gaming Commission seem to fill in a lot of blanks.

Peter Connell from Ocean Properties, representing the hospitality industry on the Gaming Commission, wrote that Hollywood’s customer base is 90 percent within Maine; Oxford’s is 80 percent in-state. Barrow added that 3.4 percent of Hollywood’s customers come from Canada.

Barrow also noted the unusually long distances that customers drive: Only 22 percent of Oxford’s players and 25 percent of Hollywood’s live within an hour of either casino.

Also illuminating: Where people aren’t gambling anymore.

* Wagers made on live races at Scarborough Downs or placed there for other tracks were down 15 percent between 2012 and 2013 and 27.8 percent between 2011 and 2013, according to a track spokeswoman and the Maine Harness Racing Commission.

Bangor, with one-quarter the live racing days as Scarborough, saw a 5 percent drop between 2011 and 2012. Figures for 2013 haven’t yet been released.

* Statewide, overall bets placed at off-track betting parlors were down 9.2 percent between 2011 and 2012, according to Donald Barberino, representing OTBs on the Gaming Commission, “with the Lewiston OTB alone seeing a 22 percent handle decrease due to the proximity of the Oxford Casino.”

* Bingo games run by the state’s nonprofits continued their plummet, from 184 games in 2011 to 135 in 2012, according to Maine State Police figures.

Money paid to play at the door of Maine’s bingo games sank from $129.2 million in 2003 to $14.5 million in 2012.

“The final nail in the coffin of the nonprofits seems to be the Oxford Casino,” Donald Simoneau, legislative chairman for the America Legion in Maine, told fellow Gaming Commissioners.

“I honestly believe — and nobody wants to talk about it — the casinos are hurting us,” he said in an interview last week.

Simoneau is a member of Livermore Falls Post 10, which stopped its bingo games four years ago. Too few people showed up.

He maintains that the casinos hurt them now, but the state-run lottery hurt them first. “The problem is that the state has a taste of that money and you’re not going to get it away; you’re not.”

* As for the lottery, sales were down $3 million statewide in 2013 over 2012, to $229.4 million between scratch tickets and drawings, and down just slightly in Oxford and Penobscot counties, home base for the two casinos.

And, some of Oxford Casino’s money is coming from Hollywood Casino: Barrow predicted before it opened that Oxford would eat into 20 percent of Hollywood’s slot-machine revenue, and it nearly has. Hollywood is down 19 percent since Oxford came on the scene, he said.

New England gaming landscape: Casinos everywhere?

What Barrow calls the “Northeast gaming market” — from Maine to the mid-Atlantic states — had 28 casinos, some with racetracks, in 2004. Last year it had 61.

With the recession and increased competition, they’re not all doing well.

“Six of Atlantic City’s 12 casinos have filed for bankruptcy since 2006 and one of those casinos, the Atlantic Club, is closing its doors permanently as we speak today,” he told the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee earlier this month.

Gross gaming revenues at Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, both in Connecticut, dropped from $3.2 billion in 2006 to $2.2 billion in 2012, he said. Casino employment there fell 30 percent in the same span.

“The two casinos collectively defaulted on more than $3 billion in debt, which results in hundreds of millions of dollars in write-offs,” Barrow said.

Not rosy, but the gaming scene is still rosy enough for some developers.

Massachusetts is weighing two proposals now for huge resort casinos in the Boston area (one for $1.2 billion, the other for $1.3 billion) and is likely to pick one this spring. In all, the state is awarding three casinos, divided regionally, plus a slots parlor.

New Hamphire’s Legislature, which went into session this week, is considering several casino bills. Its Gaming Regulatory Oversight Commission has suggested aiming high: requiring an $80 million casino operator license fee and a minimum capital investment of $450 million.

Maine’s current license fee, added to statute a year ago, is $5 million.

“It hasn’t applied to anybody yet because (Maine) also put a moratorium on new casinos,” said Gambling Control Board Executive Director Patrick Fleming.

The Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee created its Gaming Commission last year in part to study the effects of casinos in Maine and to measure how much market is left; it disbanded in November before finishing that work, when the group splintered over recommending several new licenses.

State Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, the commission’s chairman, said he’d like to see a do-over with more resources.

“Five million dollars is not a fair licensing fee for what we’re talking about,” he told the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, of which Patrick is also a member. “If you had one down in southern Maine, maybe it’s worth $150 million.”

Massachusetts and New Hampshire proposals could provide some guidance, “where we can look, if we choose, going forward,” Patrick said.

In front of the Maine Legislature now are bills that would allow the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians to open a casino in Houlton; the Passamaquoddy Tribe to operate slot machines in Washington County; and Scarborough Downs to open a casino next to the track there or another spot, pending local approval.

Passamaquoddy Tribal Chief Joseph Socobasin, also on the folded Gaming Commission, told that group that a casino with up to 750 slots, high-stakes beano, horse racing and a minimum 80-room hotel near Calais would draw 60 percent of its patrons from Canada.

In front of the committee, Barrow allowed that there might be room for more casinos in northern Maine because of international crossings and truck traffic.

It’s the Scarborough proposal that he’s against, on behalf of Oxford. Barrow has projected 95.5 percent of a Scarborough casino’s gross gaming revenues would come from Oxford and Hollywood casino’s current take; that 96 percent of gross gaming revenues would come from people living within 60 minutes of the track; and that the timing of Scarborough’s request is particularly bad given the state’s two existing venues are going to have to compete with Massachusetts and New Hampshire, which will already mean big monetary whacks.

“Why would you purposely disarm your market leaders and disperse your forces at precisely that point of a casino arms race where new capital investment and facilities expansion will be necessary to compete in an increasingly crowded New England gaming market?” Barrow said.

MacColl, Scarborough Downs’ attorney, called the projections “completely preposterous.”

Envisioned either in Scarborough or Biddeford: a 100-room hotel, a dining room with a view of the racing oval, and gaming in a building adjacent to the track.

“The Churchill Downs facility (in Oxford) was going to be a four-season resort. I think it was the day after Election Day they said, ‘Well yeah, but that’s phases. Phase 2 could come 10, 20, 50, 200 years from now; right now we’re just going to have gaming,'” MacColl said. “(A Scarborough Downs casino) wouldn’t be phased, it wouldn’t be detached, it wouldn’t be across the highway. It wouldn’t be, ‘Well, you can go watch a race, but don’t get hit by any cars (when you cross the street from Hollywood Casino to the Bangor Historic Track)’. The next person that walks across that five-lane highway to watch a race will be the first one.”

Scarborough Downs spokeswoman Susan Higgins said they would anticipate an “off the charts” number of visiting tourists coming through the door.

Should the Legislature not vote in favor of the track again — it’s asked many times without success —  “this would probably be the end; there’s no more hanging on. This is it,” Higgins said. “We would probably race through 2014, if we can.”

Owner Sharon Terry has been running Scarborough Downs at a loss and sold land to prop up the business, according to MacColl.

She has said she’d pay $50 million for a license.

‘Who’s the best?’

How many casinos is too many for one state? Not many people have looked into it, said the author of “Casinonomics.”

Doug Walker, an author and economics professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, said academics have been slow to study the issue, despite the sizable implications.

He teamed with Todd Nesbit on an upcoming case study on the state of Missouri. With a population of 6 million people, according to the U.S. Census, that state got its first casino in 1994. It had 13, the maximum by state law, in 2012.

While casinos opened, closed and opened, and some experienced individual decline, state gaming revenues continued to rise during the 15 years they studied.

“You don’t necessarily expect politicians to have a good understanding of what’s going on or how many is too many, because they don’t understand the business,” Walker said. “You would expect that the people who are putting in the money, who are building the casinos, that’s their business, they know what the market is like. If you have them willing to go into Maine or Massachusetts or wherever, they must expect there’s still a market there for it and that it’s worth them investing.”

The argument from those already here that Maine is full-up makes sense, he said. “No one likes more competition for themselves; you have to expect, even if it’s a single monopoly in the Northeast, they’re going to say, ‘We don’t need any more; we’re serving the public fine.’

“If you’re a government and all you care about is tax revenues, then you want to maximize the amount of gambling that’s going on,” Walker said. “Overall revenues are still likely to go up.”

Some states, he added, have had to re-examine tax rates on gambling after adding more casinos. It can be hard to maintain a high rate and keep development.

“The Northeast is really where things are changing kind of quickly,” Walker said. Several other areas are watching what happens.

New Hampshire state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro has introduced a gaming bill in his Legislature nearly every year for 16 years. His current bill includes room for two casinos, one for a license fee of $40 million and another twice as large for $80 million.

“We’re not looking for those who can’t afford to play the game,” D’Allesandro said.

He isn’t sure, but the time could finally be right for it to pass in both chambers.

“The need has manifested itself,” D’Allesandro said. “We just settled a claim having to do with mental health, so we’ve got to pony up $30 million in the next biennium and the economy has not improved to that extent, so there’s a need. I think that’s a plus.”

His conservative estimate: One casino would bring in $100 million a year to state coffers.

This winter, D’Allesandro very much has eyes on his neighbor to the north.

“We’re OK with Maine doing whatever they want to do,” he said. “Anytime you have more, you provide more opportunities for people; you say then, ‘Who’s going to provide the best?’ And that’s what it’s going to become.”

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The Big 2: Maine’s current casinos, by the numbers

Oxford Casino

Figures for 2013

$700 million: Estimated amount wagered on slots

400-plus: Employees

$10.4 million: Estimated wages and benefits

$11 million-plus: Estimated amount spent at Maine vendors

$30 million: Estimated gaming taxes paid

Hollywood Casino

Figures for 2013

$468 million: Amount wagered on slots

400-plus: Employees

$11.7 million: Estimated wages and benefits

$8 million-plus: Estimated amount spent at Maine vendors

$24 million: Estimated gaming taxes paid

A billion dollars is . . .

More than twice what all the paper-making jobs in Maine bring home.

(Statewide payroll is $470 million. Source: Maine Pulp and Paper Association)

More than what 16,144 average Maine families earn in a year.

(Average household income in Maine is $61,942. Source: U.S. Census)

More than the cost of building an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer at Bath Iron Works.

(Approximately $700 million. Source: BIW)

Half of what people spent eating out at Maine restaurants last year.

($2.3 billion from December 2012 to November 2013. Source: Maine Office of Policy and Management)

One-sixth the size of the state’s entire two-year budget.

($6.3 billion. Source: Sun Journal archives)


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