February 26, 2020

Tribes reject Oxford casino

Last November, Washington County residents were stinging over voters’ rejection of a Passamaquoddy petition to bring gambling – and therefore jobs and tourists – to their economically depressed corner of Maine.

On Tuesday, Washington County fired back.

Nearly three-quarters of voters in Maine’s easternmost county opposed a proposal for a resort casino on the opposite side of the state. Perhaps not surprisingly, figures in Passamaquoddy communities were even more dramatic.

In Indian Township, 87 percent of voters cast ballots against the Oxford project. More than 80 percent of voters in both Princeton and Pleasant Point also opposed the Western Maine referendum.

“The tribal people remembered that Oxford County people didn’t support us last year,” said Pleasant Point Tribal Gov. Rick Phillips-Doyle.

Of course, with less than 3 percent of the total ballots, Washington County didn’t exactly decide the referendum. According to unofficial results, 54 percent of voters statewide opposed Olympia Gaming’s proposal for a casino, resort and conference in Oxford.

The returns show significant regional variations.

A majority of voters in only four of Maine’s 16 counties – neighboring Androscoggin, Franklin, Kennebec and Oxford – supported the project. The abutting counties of Oxford and Androscoggin led the way with 60 percent approval.

In the town of Oxford, where many of the anticipated 1,200 construction jobs and about 900 full-time and part-time jobs would be located, two-thirds of voters supported bringing gaming to town. The Oxford County community of Rumford saw similar returns, but a majority of voters in the county’s tourist hubs of Bethel and Newry voted no.

Among city voters, those in Lewiston, Waterville and Augusta were more likely to support the project. But voters in Portland and Bangor were more likely to oppose it.

In Bangor, home of Maine’s only slots facility, 64 percent of voters cast ballots opposing expanding gaming to Oxford. That was slightly higher than the Penobscot County average, but nowhere near the margins on the Penobscot Nation’s Indian Island, where opponents outnumbered supporters 4-1.

The Penobscot tribe has lost several bids for gaming facilities, including this year when Gov. John Baldacci vetoed a slots bill for Indian Island.

Hancock County voters also strongly opposed bringing gambling to Oxford with 68 percent voting against the proposal. Opposition in several towns, including Bar Harbor and Southwest Harbor, surpassed 70 percent.

Pat LaMarche, spokesperson for the casino campaign, said she was surprised by Bangor’s large margins even with Hollywood Slots in town. But LaMarche bristled when asked about the strong opposition in many coastal towns.

“It’s a shame that those people who do have a resort economy don’t understand why that would be important to people in other parts of the state,” LaMarche said.

LaMarche acknowledged that the campaign was also hampered by a late start and controversial provisions in the enabling legislation that would have lowered the voting age to 19 and created a 10-year moratorium on new casinos.

Jonathan Reisman, associate professor of economics and public policy at the University of Maine at Machias, said he was surprised the statewide vote fell so heavily against the proposal. Much of the talk this election has been about the economy, and the Oxford casino promised to create hundreds of jobs, he said.

But Reisman was not at all shocked by the returns from Passamaquoddy areas.

“Clearly they feel that the tribe has been ill served and that this just wasn’t right,” Reisman said.

Phillips-Doyle, the tribal governor at Pleasant Point, said that in addition to lingering anger about last year’s election, many Passamaquoddy members opposed the 10-year moratorium. That’s because tribal leaders made clear after last November’s election that they would be back.

“I guess this wasn’t the year for the Oxford people,” Phillips-Doyle said. “But who knows what would have happened if we had had our proposal this year with the large turnout.”



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