October 3, 2010

Painful economy has Mainers rethinking possible Oxford casino

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Roy Gedat has been wary of previous efforts to build casinos in Maine; but on Nov. 2, the Norway resident will vote “yes” on Question 1, which would allow a casino in Oxford County.
One difference this year is the economy, said Gedat, who works as the treasurer for Oxford County and as a health care advocate.
Two modular-home manufacturers in the county have closed, and the county’s unemployment rate — which has hovered at more than 10 percent for most of the year — is among the highest in Maine.
“In this county, we need jobs badly,” he said.
Gedat is not alone in re-thinking his position on casinos.
In The Maine Poll conducted Monday, 52 percent of those surveyed said they would definitely or probably vote “yes” on Question 1, and 39 percent would definitely or probably vote “no.”
The poll of 405 registered voters who said they were likely to vote Nov. 2 was conducted for MaineToday Media by the Portland research firm Critical Insights. It has a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points, with a 95 percent confidence level. Critical Insights also conducts polling for a pro-casino group.
Although Maine voters have rejected previous casino proposals, they appear to be more open to casinos this year because of the sluggish economy, said Marvin Druker, a professor of public affairs at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College.
“I think people are looking for anything that provides jobs and is going to generate employment,” he said.
Casino opponents say their side always trails in the polls, but will win on Election Day once voters fully understand how a casino harms a community.
Moreover, the economic argument makes no sense, particularly this year, said Dennis Bailey, a spokesman for the anti-casino political action committee Casinos No!
The casino industry nationally is experiencing a sharp downturn, leaving casino communities in other parts of the country — such as Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Tunica, Miss. — with higher unemployment rates than Oxford County, Bailey said.
A casino in Oxford County won’t draw tourists from outside the state, he said. Rather, it will simply take money from Mainers.
“Where is the evidence that these casinos are the answers to our economy?” he asked. “The answer is they take money from our economy. Money that is spent on casinos is money that would have gone to local residents and bowling alleys and pizza places.”
ZiZi Vlaun of Otisfield, who has organized a local campaign to oppose the casino, said she worries about a casino’s social effects. She said a casino will increase the crime rate, hurt families because of gambling addiction and increase the number of drunken-driving accidents.
The poll numbers as “disheartening,” she said. “There will be a death because of the casino coming to our area. Which family will be affected by it?”
These argument have worked in the past. Maine voters in 2003 defeated a referendum proposal by the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Nation for a $650 million casino in Sanford.
In 2008, Maine voters rejected a plan by the Passamaquoddy Tribe to build a casino in Calais. In 2009, they shot down a proposal for a casino in Oxford County.
So far this year, however, the political campaign has been a one-sided affair.
Casino opponents have yet to run any television ads. Their strategy is to wait until the last weeks before the election before going on TV.
The pro-casino political action committee, Maine Taxpayers Taking Charge, has been running ads since Aug. 16.
The group has committed itself to spending more than $1 million in the Bangor, Portland and Presque Isle television markets.
In the first two weeks of September, the PAC has run ads 80 to 90 times in those markets, according to Mike Franze, a Bowdoin College associate professor of government who does research on political advertising.
The ads claim the casino will create 2,700 jobs and $60 million in tax revenue. They cite a study by a University of Maine researcher.
It’s not a surprise that the public is supporting Question 1, because it has been hearing arguments only from the pro-casino side, Franze said.
“They are the only ones on TV right now,” he said.
Druker of Lewiston-Auburn College said casino advocates probably have one of their best chances of winning this year.
One advantage, he said, is the example set by Hollywood Slots “racino” in Bangor, which opened in 2005 and remains the only gambling facility approved by Maine voters. Hollywood Slots is licensed only for slot machines. The proposed Oxford County casino would have table games such as poker and blackjack.
Hollywood Slots hasn’t produced the big social problems that opponents had worried about, Druker said.
“The state hasn’t gone down the tubes,” he said. “The heavens haven’t fallen. You may not like gambling, but it’s not going to destroy the state.”

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