July 02, 2020

Saco, Westbrook strongly reject racino

Westbrook and Saco residents soundly rejected referendums Tuesday that would have allowed Scarborough Downs to build a harness racing track with slot machines in their cities.

In Westbrook, residents voted down a proposal to allow a “racino” in the city by a vote of 3,168 to 2,225, a ratio of 59-41 percent, according to unofficial results. In Saco, a racino proposal was defeated 3,750 to 2,300, a 62-38 percent ratio.

The elections marked the end of a bitter two-month campaign and leaves officials with Scarborough Downs and its business partner, Penn National Gaming, planning their next move.

Sharon Terry, owner of Scarborough Downs, said she would approach the Legislature when it reconvenes in January about changing portions of the racino law. She wants the Legislature to loosen restrictions on where a racino can be located and when local communities can hold referendums on whether to allow them.

The law now requires a host community to approve of a racino by Dec. 31 of this year and for the racino to be located within five miles of the track’s current location.

“The restrictions are pretty horrific for us,” Terry said.

Dennis Bailey, spokesman for CasinosNo!, which advised anti-racino groups in Saco and Westbrook, said he and others will fight efforts to loosen up the law. He said the votes should send a message to developers who want to bring slot machines and other new forms of gambling to Maine.

“I think it’s a message to the promoters of the casinos to give it up,” he said. “Maine doesn’t want this stuff. Go home and leave us alone.”

Lee Umphrey, spokesman for Gov. John Baldacci, said the governor called from a family vacation in Arizona to find out the results.

Baldacci said that the votes reinforced his opinion that Mainers don’t want economic development through the expansion of gambling, Umphrey said. The governor added that the results validate his plan to create a new state regulatory structure to oversee racinos and the gambling industry in the state.

Mainers approved a statewide referendum Nov. 4 allowing Bangor Raceway and Scarborough Downs to install slot machines if local residents approved. Bangor voters last June voted in favor of allowing a racino at Bangor Raceway, but Scarborough voters rejected a racino proposal in November.

Shawn Scott, a Las Vegas developer who owns Bangor Raceway, is in the process of trying to get a license to run the track and racino.

Because of the way the law was written, Scarborough Downs was allowed to find another community within a 5-mile radius that would vote in favor of slots before a Dec. 31 deadline. Saco and Westbrook officials agreed to put the question to voters.

During the campaign, supporters said racinos would create jobs and help lower property taxes. They presented the elections as being the first step in opening a formal dialogue with Scarborough Downs as opposed to being the final word on whether a racino would be built.

Critics maintained that supporters were exaggerating the potential benefits, and that a racino would harm the character of the cities and bring increased crime, traffic and social problems, such as gambling addiction.

Scott bought TV ads and filed lawsuits in an effort to persuade residents to vote against the Saco and Westbrook referendums. Racino supporters accused Scott of using scare tactics and misleading information.

Scarborough Downs has said that it needs slot machines to remain in business. Without higher purses created with slot machine revenue, horsemen will go elsewhere, track officials said.

They also estimate a track with 1,500 slot machines could generate $125 million in annual revenues.

Officials estimate a revenue-sharing agreement could have brought Westbrook $3.75 million annually. Saco officials wanted $125,000 a month, or 3 percent of the slot machine revenue, whichever was more.

In Saco, Scarborough Downs already secured an option on a parcel of more than 180 acres on U.S. Route 1 near the Scarborough town line. It had not identified a potential site in Westbrook.

In the statewide November election, Saco voters approved of allowing racinos in the state by a vote of 3,877 to 3,342. Westbrook voters approved of racinos 4,074 to 2,622.

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