BIDDEFORD — Emotions were heated Monday as residents weighed in on a $125 million racino complex proposed by Scarborough Downs and hotel operator and developer Ocean Properties Ltd.

The public forum on the proposed Biddeford Downs project drew more than 150 people to Biddeford City Theater. The nearly three-hour event was punctuated by comments and outbursts of applause as attendees spoke on issues ranging from jobs to gambling addiction to morality.

The partners estimate the project will bring 500 full-time jobs with average annual salary and benefits worth $35,000 and an estimated $5 million in tax revenue for the city. They are looking at an 88-acre city-owned parcel on Andrews Road, west of the Maine Turnpike, for a 200-room hotel, a racetrack, an entertainment complex and as many as 1,500 slot machines.

The plan was made public last week, a little more than a month before city voters will decide Question 1 on the local ballot, which asks whether a racino should be allowed to locate in Biddeford.

The event Monday began with presentations from representatives of the city, Scarborough Downs and Ocean Properties. The city provided the space and paid for the moderator and the partners paid for other staffing in the theater, according to City Manager John Bubier.

The question-and-answer session that followed served more as an opportunity for audience members to say where they stand.

Sue Grant began to cry as she spoke about how her husband was laid off from his job in 2008.

“We need jobs. My family is hungry and we need jobs in this area,” Grant said. “So my question is: ‘Where do I get my Yes on 1 sign?’ “

Jobs have been Mayor Joanne Twomey’s rallying cry as she throws her support behind the project. She stressed that city voters must approve the racino referendum in November before Biddeford officials can negotiate a deal and work out details on issues such as traffic, turnpike access and whether income from the project could go toward renovating Biddeford High School.

“I have not signed anything. I want to make that perfectly clear,” she said. “What this vote is about is to let me move to the second stage.”

Dot Cook, a former WestPoint Stevens worker, praised Twomey for her pursuit of the project. Cook pointed out that her monthly trips to Foxwoods casino in Connecticut often involve a couple of busloads of people.

“Where are those folks coming from? Right here in Biddeford,” she said.

Opponents were also vocal.

Rick Ouellette compared the enthusiasm for a racino to that which preceded construction of Maine Energy Recovery Co.’s now oft-criticized downtown incinerator. He questioned whether Biddeford should accept a racino when Scarborough hasn’t. Scarborough residents have twice rejected proposals to allow slot machines at the racetrack there, first in 2003 and then in 2008.

“If this is so good, why doesn’t Scarborough want it?” he asked.

Richard Rhames criticized the event as a public relations set-up that provided promises and assurances but no hard numbers.

“What we’re hearing is ‘Trust us. Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink,’ ” he said.

The development of a racino is not guaranteed even if Biddeford voters pass the November city referendum. The project would also need a change in state law, either through the Legislature or a citizen initiative. And if a statewide referendum to allow a casino in Oxford County and ban similar operations within 100 miles passes, Biddeford Downs would need an exemption.

 

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: akim@pressherald.com