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Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram

Casino backers seek state vote

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The group behind the latest Oxford County proposal hopes to put the question to voters in 2010.
By MATT WICKENHEISER Staff Writer
October 16, 2009
Peter Martin, spokesman for Black Bear Four Seasons Resort, talks at a press conference Thursday at the Holiday Inn By the Bay in Portland. With him, from left, are partners Robert Lally Jr., Stephen Barber and Jim Boldebook.
John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

LATEST PLAN MORE CONSERVATIVE THAN LAST

Developers say their proposal differs from last year's failed bid in several key ways:

- It does not call for lowering the casino gambling age of 21

- It does not insist the casino be represented on any Maine boards

- It calls for a limit on the number of slot machines (1,500)

- It requires the bulk of taxes from gambling revenues be used for education

 

PORTLAND — Mainers will be asked again to consider allowing a casino in the state, once more in Oxford County.

A group of business people said Thursday that they are moving ahead with a proposal for the Black Bear Four Seasons Resort and Casino in the town of Oxford. They're pursuing citizen-initiated legislation and had signature gatherers out Thursday morning.

They need 55,087 signatures from registered Maine voters by Feb. 1 to put the question before voters in November 2010.

The group is led by Stephen Barber, former president of Barber Foods. Other partners are Jim Boldebook, founder of Creative Broadcast Concepts Inc. in Biddeford; Rupert and Suzanne Grover, founders of Grover Gundrilling Inc. in Oxford County; and Robert Lally Jr., co-owner of Mount Abram ski area.

"We are going to complement Maine's effort to promote tourism and we will bring new visitors to Maine," Barber said at a press conference. "We will create new quality jobs with benefits."

Mainers have rejected gambling proposals several times in the past few years, including last year, when they turned down a proposal for a casino in Oxford County, 389,251 to 333,685.

Such proposals have met stiff opposition from CasinosNO!, a group set up to oppose gambling in Maine. A spokesman from that group promised opposition to this proposal, too.

"I think they're out to prove Einstein's definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting a different result," said Dennis Bailey. "This issue's been debated. There's nothing new here."

The new plan's backers said last year's proposal was flawed — something commonly acknowledged — and pointed out several key differences.

The new proposal drafted by the group wouldn't lower the gambling age from 21 to 19, as the previous plan would have, said spokesman Peter Martin. The previous proposal would have given the casino development company representation on a number of Maine boards; the new one would not.

There was no limit on the number of slot machines in the last proposal, Martin said, while this casino would be limited to 1,500. This project would have table games on site, and the proposal includes versions of the "strictest laws" from other states regulating those games.

The distribution of taxes from gambling revenue also would be different, said Martin.

Gambling revenue would be taxed at a rate of 46 percent. Most would go to education, with 25 percent for K-12 essential program services, 4 percent to a University of Maine Scholarship Fund and 3 percent to Maine Community College System scholarships.

Three percent would go to the Maine Gambling Control Board, 4 percent to the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes, and 2 percent to the town of Oxford.

One percent each would go to Oxford County, the Maine Dairy Farm Stabilization Fund, the Maine Agricultural Fair Support Fund, the Maine Sire Stakes Fund and the Maine Harness Racing Purse Fund.

"People in every county of the state will benefit from this educational relief," said Martin.

The resort would be built on at least 50 acres and include a "destination convention center," as well as restaurants, shops, spas and the casino.

The group said the proposal would create about 1,000 jobs and have a $30 million annual payroll. Martin said the Maine-based group may be the sole investors or may partner with an outside group. It has not approached gaming partners to manage operations but would need some such agreement.

The state gambling board grants licenses only to management groups with financial and gaming experience.

The group pushed the economic development aspect of the proposal as did Oxford Town Manager Michael Chammings, who was at Thursday's press conference.

Chammings noted that the area has lost thousands of jobs in the past few years and that some towns have already emptied their general assistance budgets.

According to the state Department of Labor, Oxford County had an unemployment rate of 11 percent in August, up from 6.4 percent in the same period a year ago. It had the third-highest unemployment rate in the state, behind Franklin and Piscataquis counties. Maine's overall unemployment rate in August was 7.7 percent, and the national average was 9.6 percent.

Bailey, of CasinosNO!, questioned the economic effect of casinos. Rhode Island has two big casinos and has the third-highest unemployment rate in the nation, he noted, with one of the two gaming operations bankrupt. Nevada has the second highest unemployment rate in the country, he said.

"Show me the evidence. It just does not exist that these things are big job producers," Bailey said.

If the group gets the required signatures, its proposal will go before the Legislature, which could vote for or against it but not change it in any way. If approved, the bill would go to the governor, who would have several options, including approving or vetoing it.

If turned down by the Legislature or governor, the plan would go before voters in November 2010. If approved, it would go back to the Legislature for further work and implementation.

If that happens, Martin said, he expects the resort casino will open in 2012.

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at mwickenheiser@pressherald.com

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