Biddeford voters on Tuesday approved a racino as developers of a proposed complex waited in the wings.

The ballot measure to allow the city to host a harness racing and slot machine complex won with 59 percent of the vote.

The tally was 4,636 in favor and 3,244 against.

Voter approval of the racino referendum is an early hurdle for Biddeford Downs, the project envisioned by Scarborough Downs and hotel company Ocean Properties Ltd.

In addition to the local approval process, the project needs a change in state law and an exemption if the Oxford County casino referendum passes.

“We feel the city has given a strong mandate,” said Edward MacColl, the lawyer for Scarborough Downs, noting that the racino referendum won in six of the city’s seven wards.

Scarborough Downs’ intention to relocate to Biddeford became known in August, when the Biddeford City Council decided to put the referendum on the November ballot. Critics have accused the City Council of meeting in private illegally before taking that action.

The debate around a Biddeford racino began to heat up in late September when the developers and city officials announced details of the proposal for a complex on city-owned land on Andrews Road, west of the Maine Turnpike.

The backers touted the $125 million investment expected for the project and the anticipated jobs — 500 full-time positions, not including those needed for construction, with average wages and benefits worth $35,000.

The city’s share of slot machine revenues is projected to be $5 million annually while the property tax revenue would be about $1.5 million.

The project’s supporters also floated the ideas that the city’s share of the revenue could be used to offset some of the burden on taxpayers from a high school bond and pay for downtown improvements.

Critics accused the city of rushing the project through and warned that there were too many unknowns.

Racino opponents will continue to keep a watchful eye on the project, said Ericka Wainberg, spokeswoman for Citizens Against a Bad Deal, the political action committee formed in opposition to the racino referendum.

“It’s just a matter of waiting and seeing — seeing if some of those promises can be upheld. I don’t know how they’re going to keep all the promises they made,” she said.

Racino opponents fought a good fight, especially in light of being caught by surprise and having far fewer resources, Wainberg said.

As of Oct. 19, Pepperell Downs, the political action committee formed by the racino partners, spent $122,619.66, while Citizens Against a Bad Deal had spent $3,326.90, according to campaign finance reports.

Tom Varley, Ocean Properties’ senior vice president of operations, said the developers were confident that they had a good project and that the community was behind it.

He said they’ll be working to address the concerns of the 41 percent of voters opposed to the referendum.

“I feel confident that over the next few months we will be able to answer most of those questions,” he said.

 

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