August 19, 2019

Striking a balance to Bangor’s advantage

As I walked door to door last fall and spoke to citizens in Bangor, Veazie and Orono, one of the most common questions I heard was, what are we going to do to bring more jobs to the Bangor area? And as an aside people would ask, where is our racino? With the news that Penn National will soon set up shop in Bangor, I am happy to report that both of those questions can be answered in a very positive way.

The announcement from Penn National is an exciting new development for Bangor, but it truly is the result of a lot of hard work and a true collaboration between the public and private sectors. As one who worked as a legislative aide in Augusta before my election, I understood the legislative process. But I am first and foremost a resident of Bangor and I too wondered why it seemed to take so long to get this project up and running.

I am now, however, truly convinced that the state and the private sector have done their due diligence. We can now move forward with confidence that we will have a world-class facility that will be prosperous for the owners, will provide good jobs with benefits and will provide both the city and state with new revenue streams that will benefit a myriad of worthy endeavors.

To understand why this process needed careful scrutiny we have to step back and remember that the state was looking at licensing an entirely new type of business. And this new business was one that would undoubtedly engender much concern from local residents. In two separate referendums, however, the citizens of Bangor voted to allow a racino to operate in Bangor. A majority of Bangor residents felt that it would spur economic development and enhance our city’s reputation as a vacation and recreation destination. The state’s role was to put a structure in place to allow for a prosperous and safe facility.

As a state, we needed to strike a balance with the regulatory needs, while providing the flexibility for a potential operator to grow and prosper. The first step toward that goal was establishing a Gambling Control Board, which the Legislature did last spring with considerable help and input from the governor.

The board, which will oversee the development of a racino, hired an exceptionally qualified individual, Robert Welch, to be executive director. We are confident that Welch – a retired Bangor deputy police chief and graduate of the FBI National Academy – will help with the effective implementation of the racino regulations.

But before the board could proceed with licensing any potential applicant, a legal framework needed to be completed. This application process would need to allow for an application to be submitted but protect privacy and proprietary information. During this session a bill, LD 90, was submitted to set up a template the board could use to collect the necessary background information. Gov. John Baldacci, recognizing the importance of this project, directed his staff to work for passage of this bill and they should be commended for their work.

The bill was initially referred to the Legislature’s Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over the proposed racino. After extensive discussion, the bill was reported out of the committee with a unanimous ought to pass report. Further approval was needed before the Legislature could vote on it because it sought to create an exemption from the state’s Freedom of Access laws for the racino applicant.

The Judiciary Committee, on which I sit, looked at the pertinent issues regarding access to information laws. This committee suggested some minor changes that the Gambling Control Board, the Maine Press Association and representatives from Penn National all agreed would allow them to work together.

The House and Senate unanimously approved the bill and Gov. Baldacci signed the bill into law on March 31. The result is a solid piece of legislation that will respect the public’s right to know about a new business entity in the community, while balancing that with an orderly and professional process of gathering sensitive information.

As a freshman legislator, I was proud to have played a role in this new development for Bangor. The entire Bangor-area delegation (most notably Rep. Pat Blanchette who worked tirelessly on this project during the last Legislature and this session), the governor’s office and Penn National all showed what can happen when public and private interests come together and work toward a common goal. Everyone compromised a little, everyone was patient and in the end we will have what everyone really wants, a more prosperous Bangor.

I would be remiss were I not to acknowledge that it is a bittersweet day for Bangor. While I am happy that we will welcome a new business, Bangor certainly is losing a piece of history with the closing of Miller’s Restaurant [recently purchased by Penn National for use as a temporary gaming racino]. As one who went to Miller’s on high school prom dates, dined with family and friends for special events and took my daughter to Miller’s before the father-daughter dance, I know I speak for many when I say it will be missed.

Mike Dunn represents House District 18 (East Bangor, Veazie and part of Orono) in the Maine House of Representatives.

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