NORWAY — Among the tasks for Maine voters Tuesday was deciding whether a casino should be built in Oxford County.
If Question 1 passes, voters will have approved the first casino in Maine allowing table games, such as blackjack and poker.
A group of wealthy families behind the proposal spent more than $3 million to persuade voters to approve the measure. Opponents spent less than $600,000 on their campaign.
Question 1 on Tuesday’s ballot was leading in the returns as soon as precincts began reporting results, but the lead narrowed as more votes were counted. At 11:30 p.m., with 34 percent of precincts reporting, the proposal was leading, 51 percent to 49 percent.
Black Bear Entertainment, the company that was formed to promote and develop the casino, has yet to identify a location, but company officials say they are looking at five sites on Route 26 in Oxford.
One of the company’s partners is Robert Lally, co-owner of the Mount Abram ski resort. He said the company plans to build a $165 million, 100,000-square-foot casino and resort in phases over five years.
With voters’ approval, he said, the company plans to hire engineers and planners immediately to help it select a site and begin the permitting process. He said his company would announce the team today.
The company said the casino and resort would create more than 1,700 year-round jobs and generate at least $60 million in revenue that would be directed to specific state programs. More than half of the money would be used to fund education programs statewide, including money for K-12 education and scholarships to state universities and community colleges.
Construction itself would create 800 jobs, said John Napolitano, president of the Maine State Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents 13 trade unions.
“Private investment like this is good,” he said. ” There will be plenty of jobs.”
Napolitano was waiting for election results with Yes on 1 supporters at a party Tuesday night at DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant in Portland. Also at DiMillo’s were Black Bear investors Lally and Stephen Barber, former president of Barber Foods in Portland. There were about 60 people at the party initially, but the crowd dwindled to about 25 as returns came in.
In Oxford, Maurice’s Restaurant on Route 26 was hopping by 8 p.m., filled with casino supporters.
Strobe lights darted off the front entrance, where supporters of Yes on 1 were greeted by Derek Lovely, an Oxford native who was named Cosmopolitan magazine’s most eligible bachelor in Maine last month.
Inside, several owners of Black Bear Entertainment mingled, including Suzanne and Rupert Grover.
“We’re excited, win or lose,” Suzanne Grover said. “We wanted to celebrate our community. It’s what it’s all about. We’ll be here until it’s over.”
The Grovers were joined by fellow investors Jim Boldebook of Alfred and Peter Martin of Waterville.
“We decided this was economic development for our area. We need to get people jobs,” Suzanne Grover said.
Waitresses in fishnet stockings passed appetizers, and supporters spun a roulette wheel.
“These initiatives are always close,” Martin said. “We think this is the year. We think this resort’s time has come.”
Another investor, Bob Bahre, former owner of the Oxford Plains Speedway, and his wife, Sandy Bahre, were expected later in the evening.
In the studio above Cafe Nomad in downtown Norway, Zizi and Scott Vlaun gathered with 50 supporters of Oxford Hills No on 1, a grass-roots campaign that came together late this summer.
The group, in a nutshell, questions the true economic impact that a casino would have on the area’s economy.
“This resilient, diversified economy so many people have worked to build, I feel that could be destroyed,” said Scott Vlaun, a photographer and editor.
In the warmly lit studio, two computers were set to websites with election returns, as campaign workers and supporters sipped wine and mingled.
“We fought as hard as we could. We’re about positive solutions,” said Scott Vlaun. “We saw this as a threat. We rallied.”
Zizi Vlaun said she was discouraged by the amount of money the Yes on 1 side was able to sink into the campaign. Her group spent between $8,000 and $10,000.
“What we have is passion, and you can’t buy that,” Zizi Vlaun said.
However, there was strong support in Oxford County for the casino. Two modular-home manufacturers in the county have closed, and the county’s unemployment rate – more than 10 percent for most of the year – is among the highest in Maine.
Donna Catalano, 36, of Norway, a state employee with three children, said she voted “yes” on Question 1.
“I did vote for the casino because so many people are out of work, especially out here,” she said. “I’ve got a brother out of work.”
Elizabeth Madison, 30, of Norway, a Hannaford employee, said Question 1 was the most important item on the ballot.
“The area needs jobs in general,” she said. “So many places have closed down, and while unemployment is everywhere, it seems like we’ve gotten it real bad.”
Linda McSherry of Norway, a nurse, voted “no.”
“I’m not opposed to gambling, but I have concerns if it will really benefit the economy,” she said.
More than 100,000 people signed the petition to put the question on the ballot.
In 2009, Maine voters rejected a proposal for a casino in Oxford County. In 2008, Maine voters rejected a plan by the Passamaquoddy Tribe to build a casino in Calais. In 2003, voters defeated a proposal by the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Nation for a $650 million casino in Sanford.
Voters that year, however, approved a racino in Bangor. Hollywood Slots, which opened in 2005, remains the only gambling facility approved by Maine voters. Hollywood Slots is licensed only for slot machines.
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: [email protected]