BIDDEFORD — Low-quality jobs, the spread of chronic gambling, a loss of wildlife habitat and greater use of city services are among the problems that a racino could create in Biddeford, speakers on a panel organized by racino opponents told a standing-room-only crowd Monday.

The presentation at City Hall was part of a meeting organized by Citizens Against a Bad Deal, the political action committee formed in opposition to the $125 million harness racing and slot machine complex proposed by Scarborough Downs and Ocean Properties Ltd.

Opponents of the plan forced Monday’s meeting under a provision in the city charter by gathering petition signatures. They say that some city officials have been biased toward the project and have been pushing it through.

The city’s voters will decide Nov. 2 whether Biddeford should host a racino. Many other steps, including a change in state law, would be needed for the project to be built. But opponents say that if the ballot question passes, the project will gain too much momentum to be stopped.

Some panel members questioned Monday how much Biddeford would benefit in terms of jobs. The racino’s backers say the project would produce 500 jobs – not including those for construction – with an average salary and benefits worth $35,000 a year.

Sam McReynolds, a University of New England sociologist, said some of those jobs might simply migrate from local businesses that suffer after the arrival of a gambling operation.

He said that although some employees would earn high salaries, most would earn closer to $17,000 a year in positions that wouldn’t transfer well to other kinds of work.

“Dusting off a slot machine is not going to get you a job in any other sector,” he said.

A racino’s host city will benefit initially, but will start seeing social costs – increased work for police, drunken driving, gambling addiction and broken families – said Dick Balkite, a panelist who served on Gov. Angus King’s casino gambling task force.

Stu Bristol, a registered Maine Guide and one of three outdoorsmen on the panel, said that any development on the proposed site west of the Maine Turnpike – whether it’s a racino complex, a golf course or a shopping center – would jeopardize important wildlife habitat.

The 88-acre, city-owned site off Andrews Road is part of a large, unfragmented swath of undeveloped land, he said. “What are you willing to give up?” he asked.

On Friday, racino opponents filed a complaint and a request for a preliminary injunction in York County Superior Court, arguing that they had to prevent Mayor Joanne Twomey or the City Council from presiding over Monday’s meeting.

On Monday afternoon, the two sides agreed that the meeting would not last more than two hours, and that Twomey could briefly welcome the audience and state the topic neutrally. Justice Paul Fritzsche dismissed the motion for the injunction.

After the meeting, some opponents and supporters of the racino who packed the City Council chambers queued up to offer comments.

Some took issue with how some of the panelists used research based on casinos – rather than racinos without table games – in making their arguments. Others felt that panelists were condescending in their attitude toward lower-wage jobs.

“Any job is better than no job,” said Cari Cote, a human services caseworker.

Tom Varley, Ocean Properties’ senior vice president of operations, said the racino complex would need 500 employees. He said it’s an estimate he can make with confidence after opening 30 to 40 hotels in his 30-year career, which began in the housekeeping department.

“We will be hiring only local people and we will be hiring only local people to build the complex,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: [email protected]