Geoffrey Gratwick, a Bangor physician and city councilor, had opposed the idea of allowing slot machines near the city’s horse track. He just didn’t think gambling would be a healthy way for people to pass the time.

But Gratwick has since changed his mind. Like a lot of people in this city of 31,000, he has come to embrace “The Slots,” the name locals gave to Hollywood Slots & Raceway after it opened for business five years ago.

Penn National Gaming, the company that owns Hollywood Slots, has created 350 jobs, joined local service clubs, poured millions of dollars into city coffers and sponsored musical festivals that brought people to the city, Gratwick said.

“I have to say it has worked out very well, much to my surprise,” he said. “They are good neighbors.”

Bangor is the only community in Maine with gaming, giving its residents a unique vantage point when it comes to Question 1, a ballot measure that would allow a casino in Oxford County.

City officials and business leaders in Bangor have mixed minds about the casino proposal.

Question 1 itself they oppose. They say it would be unfair to allow Oxford County to have table games, such as poker and blackjack, while Hollywood Slots is limited to slot machines.

Bangor officials also worry that a casino in Oxford County could take customers away from Hollywood Slots and reduce the revenue it produces for the city.

But on the concept of gaming, many people in Bangor are eager to tout the benefits.

The $138 million racino and 152-room hotel attracted 1.2 million visitors and generated $65 million in revenue in 2009.

While the racino hasn’t delivered an economic boom — the only development it has attracted is a couple of fast-food restaurants — it has brought more people to the city and boosted the bottom line of some businesses, its supporters say.

And then there’s the cash. The city has positioned the racino as a funding source for an economic development project that could have a bigger impact than the gaming operation itself.

The city receives a portion of the income generated by the operation’s 1,000 slot machines — roughly $2 million to $2.5 million annually. It also collects more than $2 million in property and business equipment taxes each year.

City officials are now talking about using some of that revenue to pay for a bond for a new arena and civic center, to be built across the street from the racino. The arena would enable the city to book conventions and bigger entertainment acts and draw more people, said City Councilor Hal Wheeler.

Apart from the influx of cash into Bangor’s coffers, the evidence of the racino’s impact on the community is largely anecdotal, and difficult to quantify.

There is no data on whether the operation draws more visitors to Bangor or has boosted other businesses.

Still, Kerrie Tripp, executive director of the Greater Bangor Convention and Visitors Bureau, said hotel vacancy rates and retail sales during the recession didn’t dip as low in Bangor as in other areas. She believes the racino may have made the difference.

Tripp noted that her office receives several inquiries every month from people who are coming to Hollywood Slots and want to know what else there is to do in the city.

Situated about a mile down Main Street from the racino, the city’s historic downtown appears to be on the upswing. But that’s a trend that began before the racino arrived, said John Dobbs, owner of Paddy Murphy’s Pub, a downtown restaurant.

At Geaghan’s Restaurant & Pub, located next to the racino, the impact is easier to see.

Since the gaming operation opened, the restaurant has been growing at a pace of 5 percent each year, said general manager Larry Geaghan.

“In this economy, that’s huge,” he said. “If they weren’t open next door bringing in more customers, we would be flat or have negative growth.”

Hollywood Slots’ impact on crime is also difficult to determine. Between 2004 and 2009, the number of reported thefts and burglaries in Bangor increased by 29 percent, according to police statistics.

However, like the rest of the nation, Bangor experienced a deep recession during that period, and crime always rises when times are tough, Bangor Police Chief Ronald Gastia said.

Gastia said there is no data to support the theory that the increased crime is due to Hollywood Slots, and crimes that are specifically associated with the racino are relatively insignificant.

There is some anecdotal evidence of people stealing money because of gambling debt due to Hollywood Slots, said Penobscot County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy.

It’s also difficult to document whether more people have gotten into financial problems because of gambling.

The number of people from Maine calling the National Council on Problem Gambling help line has increased steadily since the casino opened, from 337 calls in 2005 to 1,263 in 2009. Here again, the statistics are misleading. The help line has been more heavily advertised in Maine since the racino opened, said the organization’s director, Keith Whyte.

National studies show, however, that the number and severity of gambling problems increase whenever a new form of gambling arrives in an area. Whyte said new casinos bring high-speed machines and higher betting limits.

“You end up getting to that desperation stage more quickly,” he said.

Voters in 2003 approved the racino in part because a portion of the revenue was to be set aside to support the state’s struggling harness racing industry. In 2009, for example, Hollywood Slots gave $11.4 million to the horse racing industry and Maine’s agricultural fairs.

But the influx of money — some of which is used to increase purses — hasn’t overcome the plummeting public interest in the sport.

Between 2006 and 2009, the value of bets placed at the Bangor Raceway has declined nearly 40 percent, according to Hollywood Slots, which operates the facility.

Dennis Bailey of Casinos No!, an advocacy group that opposes Question 1, said that rather than help the racetrack become a self-sustaining business, the racino is taking away customers.

“All we’ve done with this racino is divert gambling dollars away from harness racing and off-track betting and into the slot machines in Bangor,” he said. “The racetrack casino has not added to the economic pie. It has just sliced the pie differently.”

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: [email protected]