June 06, 2020

Oxford casino question defeated Opponents hold steady late lead

A $184 million casino and resort proposed for western Maine was defeated Tuesday despite a high-profile push by backers in recent weeks.

With 79 percent of precincts reporting, opposition to the controversial Oxford casino was holding steady at roughly 54 percent.

Pat LaMarche, spokeswoman for Olympia Gaming, the Nevada-based company behind the casino proposal, said she would like to see a different outcome because the region’s economy is in trouble.

“It’s a beautiful part of Maine that would love to be a welcome center for tourists,” LaMarche said.

Dennis Bailey, spokesman for the opposition group CasinosNO!, was pleased with the results.

“I really think Maine people made up their minds about casinos five years ago and Las Vegas just didn’t get the memo,” Bailey said.

Olympia Gaming plan called for a resort and casino featuring a 300-room hotel and spa, a conference center, up to 1,500 slot machines and a variety of gaming tables in rural Oxford.

Supporters argued the resort and gaming facility would draw tourists and big money into an area of western Maine short on jobs and opportunities.

An economic analysis commissioned by the company estimated that the casino would create more than 1,200 jobs during construction and 900 full-time and part-time jobs after buildout. The facility was also predicted to funnel $69 million into state coffers with portions of that money earmarked for education, alternative energy and other needs.

But critics have described the enabling legislation as deeply flawed because it would lower the gambling age to 19, place a 10-year moratorium on other gaming facilities and give the casino president a seat on various state boards.

“I think people are torn between jobs and a really bad piece of legislation that is going to open up a whole can of worms,” Bailey said.

Olympia officials have since pledged publicly to fix aspects of the law, including dropping the effort to change the voting age.

The proposal also dredged up hard feelings among members of Maine’s Native American tribes.

In 2003, the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes lost a costly and contentious campaign for a $650 million casino and resort in Sanford. That same year voters approved a referendum that allowed Penn National Gaming to open Hollywood Slots in Bangor.

The Passamaquoddy Tribe tried once again last November, this time with a ballot measure for a 1,500-slot facility and horse-racing track in Calais. But voters narrowly rejected the measure.

Donald Soctomah, the tribe’s representative to the Legislature, said earlier Tuesday that he believes a gaming facility will create jobs. But he voted against the Oxford proposal because last year’s vote “really let eastern Maine down.”

“I think the people in eastern Maine, where unemployment rates are so high, they feel for the people in western Maine where they are having the same problems,” Soctomah said. “It seems this was pitting the two [regions] of Maine that need the most jobs against each other.”

Preliminary election results show other Washington County voters remember last year’s results.

In 2007, more than 70 percent of Washington County residents supported the Passamaquoddy racino referendum. This time around, 73 percent of Washington County voters cast ballots against the Oxford project, according to preliminary results.

In 2007, town of Oxford voters opposed the Passamaquoddy project by a vote of 323-306. More than 66 percent of Oxford voters were supportive of bringing gambling to their backyard this year.

Bailey said he hopes Tuesday’s results will be the “definitive vote” on gambling in Maine.

LaMarche said she believes New Hampshire will end up welcoming the casino and the 900-some jobs it was expected to create.

“The one thing I want to say about our opponents is when are they going to roll their sleeves up and create some jobs for Mainers?” LaMarche said.

Correction: Earlier versions of this article ran in the State and Coastal editions.

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