As a resident, taxpayer, employer, voter and business person in Washington County, I would like to express my views to the legislative committee concerning LD 1266, the casino bill, in terms of the economic benefits of a casino in this area.
Although its effect is felt as far away as Bangor and beyond, unless you live in or near a Maine town that shares a border with the province of New Brunswick, it’s hard to imagine the devastating impact of that province’s practice of collecting sales tax at its points of entry has had on the local economy. Coupled with the high exchange rate, it is figuratively the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Just before the implementation of this new tax when rumors of a casino in Calais first surfaced, local merchants were heard to comment, “Well, that would be nice.” “Should bring in a little more business.” Many of these merchants are now saying, “I just hope to God we can hang on that long.”
At about the same time the casino rumors started, word was Wal-Mart was coming to town. That didn’t bother the little independent businessperson much. The parking lots were full, traffic was backed up and the general line of reasoning was that a Wal-Mart store, despite the competition, would just serve to bring more Canadian business to the area. “Heck, they’re driving to Bangor to shop at Wal-Mart anyhow.” “Why not keep ’em here.” was the thought of the day.
Well, the streets are no longer backed up, the parking lots are all but empty, for some reason Wal-Mart is still coming to town, and the clink of their bulldozer’s tracks ring like a death knell for our main street.
There was no way to predict or prepare for this situation. Normally, an economy should slowly rise or fall, shifting to allow for supply and demand. Maine people seem particularly adept at finding niches to fill within the marketplace, and are quick to adapt to fluctuations and changes in market demands. But nobody’s that quick. This was just lights out! Already within the short time since New Brunswick has started collecting its PST, we have witnessed four previously successful in-town businesses go under, with others on the edge of bankruptcy. In addition to this, the area’s largest employer, George-Pacific Corp.’s pulp and paper mill in Woodland citing tough environmental laws and stiff foreign competition, has recently laid off hundreds of its employees.
All this adds up to a very bleak economic picture. If something doesn’t come to this area soon, what is to become of all these hard-working people? The choices are simple. Unemployment, welfare or “Go west, young man.” Not many would opt for this last solution, but those that did would find other states bending over backward, offering 10, 15 or 20 years of tax-free operation to almost any industry interested in employing their workforce. If they traveled to Arkansas (where they have tough anti-gambling laws), they would find that state willing to give away a large peninsula of land, known as Whiskey Island, to Mississippi (where gambling is legal), if someone will build a casino there so that Arkansas can share in revenues generated.
The governor of our state said something to the effect that if a casino were built in Calais, he would also like to see other forms of recreation developed that would enable this area to serve as a vacation destination for the entire family, rather than just as a gambling resort. A tourist information book published by my father shows that this is an area of “Vacationland” already geared toward tourism, and that many of these other forms of recreation exist in the area now.
Many interesting state and provincial parks, uncrowded golf courses and tennis courts, guided canoe trips, lovely camping areas, hunting, fishing, whale watching, miles of unspoiled beaches, nature, hiking and cross-country skiing trails are just the start of a long list of things for the whole family to do and see in this part of our state.
The summary of my economic point is this: Each legislator, when deciding whether to approve this project, has to ask, “What’s in it for me?” meaning, “What’s in it for the people of my district if I vote to approve this casino?” That is what they were elected to do. That is their charge. Well, this would be my answer to their question: Other than the fact that tourists would be entering and traveling through our state from almost all points of the compass, spending their money along the way, and increased wealth through employment of people of this area may go to purchase items manufactured in other parts of the state, as well as pay taxes and so forth.
We are in what could well be considered a desperate situation here. Because of its geographical location, Washington County has consistently had the highest per capita unemployment and welfare rate in the state, and now New Brunswick’s PST and other factors threaten to make that look like a drop in the bucket! This financial burden is shared by every taxpaying resident and employer in the state. I think the most concise answer to the question, “What’s in it for me if it’s approved?” is another question, “What’s in it for all of us if it’s not approved?”
Christopher Hinson lives in Baring.