GAME ON; $132 million and 15 months later Hollywood Slots in Bangor readies for Tuesday’s opening

This story was published on June 28, 2008 on Page A1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

BANGOR – The move is on for Hollywood Slots.

Less than three years after it opened with 475 slot machines in an interim home at the former Miller’s Restaurant on Main Street, Hollywood Slots at Bangor is poised to set up shop in a new, larger $132 million complex called Hollywood Slots Hotel and Raceway.

Parent company Penn National Gaming Inc. broke ground in the spring of 2007 at the new site, which sits at 500 Main St. on the bank of the Penobscot River and sports what has become its signature glass rotunda out front.

Besides 1,000 slots, more than twice the number Hollywood Slots now has, the new facility will add a seven-story hotel, a buffet and smaller restaurant, a gift shop and a four-level parking garage to its list of offerings.

The scale

The complex is huge by Bangor standards, taking up most of the 8-acre site the operation will occupy.

To give a sense of its scale, Hollywood Slots spokeswoman Amy Kenney has described the gaming floor and “back of the house,” or area for support operations, to be roughly the size of a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

“We’re ready to roll,” General Manager Jon Johnson said Friday of an ambitious moving operation that will be condensed into a 22-hour period.

“We are prepared. We’re really looking forward to it. We’re excited about it, we really are. It would really make me happy to see the place filled with people,” he said.

According to the moving schedule, Hollywood Slots at Bangor will close its temporary home at the former Miller’s Restaurant Sunday night. The bottom level will close at 6 p.m. and the upper level at 8 p.m.

With the exception of a few machines that were moved earlier as part of a test run, the slots at the old facility will be moved to the new site, where they will join more than 500 new ones.

The facility is slated to reopen for an invitation-only VIP charity play event Monday evening. More than a dozen corporate officials from Penn National’s headquarters in Wyomissing, Pa., are among those who will be on hand.

The VIP event, for which 800 invitations were sent out, will serve as an opportunity to make sure all the bugs are worked out of the new operation, Johnson said.

The new complex officially will open to the public at 10 a.m. Tuesday, he said.

A grand opening

Hollywood Slots Hotel and Raceway will kick off its grand opening with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and the following features:

. Live music throughout the day with Sista Sadie, Rockin’ Ron and the New Society Band, and Midnight Rose.

. Celebrity lookalikes Jack Nicholson, Mae West and more.

. Showgirls throughout the day.

. Picture taking with celebrity “Big Heads” George Burns, Jerry Lewis, Liza Minnelli and more.

. The launch of a 10-day grand opening promotion with cash prizes.

The seven-story hotel, located behind the parking garage and gaming area, will have 152 rooms, four of them luxury suites on the top floor. Each floor will have two handicapped-accessible rooms, Hollywood Slots’ facilities director, Michael Morris, noted while conducting a recent tour.

The seven corner rooms on the downtown side of the hotel will offer views not only of the river but also of downtown Bangor’s steeple-studded skyline.

The hotel won’t open until late July, Johnson said.

Though the gaming floor and lounge are limited to those 21 and older, families are welcome at the hotel and the two restaurants, one of which is being hailed as the state’s largest buffet.

The buzz

The new Art Deco-style facility, deemed one of Maine’s largest private development investments, is generating a great deal of buzz in the area.

“It’s gorgeous inside and out. They did a fantastic job,” Bangor City Council Chairwoman Susan Hawes said Friday. “It’s a nice facility. People will feel secure in there.”

“It opens Tuesday and we’ll see what the people think,” said George McHale, an Orrington broadcaster who heads both the gambling control board and the state’s harness racing commission.

“It is what it is. It’s a racino gaming facility that the people wanted. It’s state-of-the-art as with all new things. I think what I’m hearing around town is that people are pretty excited and that people want to take a look,” he said.

Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia had a similar view: “It’s going to be a novelty. Even people who don’t want to gamble will probably go to see what it’s like.”

The impact

Aesthetics aside, Hawes expects the new racino will have a major impact on the region’s economy.

“It’s a huge project,” she said. “It means several things to the city. The impact is broad.”

For starters, she said, the new facility has a work force of about 500, up from about 200 at the interim site.

Johnson said the company employs people from as far away as Millinocket.

Quoting Peter Vigue of Pittsfield-based Cianbro Corp., the project’s general contractor, Johnson said 145 companies and approximately 1,700 workers were involved in building the complex.

“I was really impressed,” Johnson said. “That’s a lot of folks.”

Hawes says the new complex also will “help Bangor to become more of a destination” for visitors.

It also has helped invigorate the state’s harness racing industry, which was in its death throes until a few years ago, she said.

McHale agreed.

“The money that has been generated [by slots revenues] for the state has dramatically changed the face of harness racing, which it was intended to do,” he said. “Harness racing is much more secure today than it was before.”

Since it opened its interim facility in November 2005, Hollywood Slots has had an estimated 2 million visits, about 700,000 of them during May of this year, according to information provided by Hollywood Slots spokeswoman Amy Kenney.

“We hope for an increase in Canadian traffic as we will be more of an entertainment-vacation destination when we open [the new facility],” Kenney said.

Despite the investment and the jobs the project has generated, some are less than thrilled about the gambling aspect.

“This is a significant accomplishment for the people who have supported this project,” Gov. John Baldacci said Friday. “While I remain personally opposed to the expansion of gambling, I understand that the people of Bangor and Maine vote for slot machines at this site and I appreciate that the company is following through on its promised investment in the new facility.

“The state will continue strong regulation and oversight of slot machines where they have been approved by the people,” he said.

Bangor resident and clergyman Gerald Oleson was even less enthusiastic.

“Gambling is notoriously addictive, and it plays to the poorest,” he said. “Just look at the lottery checkouts. It is always those who can ill afford it standing in line buying the tickets.

“When the state makes money off gambling, it lends respectability to an industry historically steeped in crime,” he said. “I think we should ask ourselves why most states now promote gambling as a source of income, and where it leads. It is just an easy way to ‘get something for nothing.’”

Given the level of interest in the new facility, Hollywood Slots’ management and local police are advising area motorists to be prepared for an increase in traffic expected to begin Sunday and last through at least Tuesday.

Traffic during the morning and evening commutes could be busy but it is expected to be manageable. Travelers should plan a few extra minutes to move through this area.

“We wish to thank all travelers for their patience and understanding over the past number of months,” Kenney said. “We are very excited about opening this extraordinary building, and we cannot wait to see you.”

Gastia said he and his officers aren’t anticipating major problems but will post no-parking signs on side streets in the area and will provide traffic details when traffic is expected to be busiest.

Though traffic will be up, Gastia said he doesn’t expect it to rise to the level of the Fourth of July, when thousands take to the streets after the night’s fireworks are finished.

“We’ll probably see a fraction of that, so I think we’ll be OK,” he said.

With regard to crime, Gastia said the expected crime wave many predicted has failed to materialize, though he cautioned there’s no way to know what the future holds.

Based on the Hollywood Slots’ track record so far, Hawes said she is not fretting.

“In my option, they’ve had a positive impact on the city of Bangor. They’ve helped revive harness racing. It’s maintaining history while helping us to move forward.

“They have really proven themselves,” she said. “I feel they are good corporate citizens and their management people are very involved in city boards and committees. They live here and work here. They really are a class act.”

The move

Getting the machines up and running and connected to the state’s monitoring system, operated by Scientific Games, has been a major challenge, according to Robert Welch, executive director of the Maine Gambling Control Board, which operates under the auspices of the state’s Department of Public Safety.

The move was complicated by the fact that it involves rewriting computer software to accommodate slot machines that have been in use for several months with new ones, a procedure that Scientific Games says typically takes three weeks.

Welch said gambling control staff has been preparing for the move and expansion for months. They’ve tested new machine and old ones to make sure they are tapped into the state’s monitoring system. He said state police have been screening and fingerprinting new hires for months.

“If there’s a shoe to drop, I can’t see it,” Welch said.

Johnson said that all the advance legwork would be worth it in the end.

“When we get this property open, it’s a significant accomplishment not only for me but for all of my management team,” he said.

McHale said introducing slots to Bangor, and to Maine, “was a big job and there were a lot of people who did some heavy lifting in the beginning.” Hiring Welch, he said, was “an important step in the development” because as a former Bangor assistant police chief he already was well known and well regarded.

“People didn’t know what to expect. I think we were able to deal with the various issues. We just used our typical Maine work ethic and that played out well,” he said, adding, “We know what the job was and that we had to do it and it got done.”

dgagnon@bangordailynews.net

990-8189

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