The companies behind the proposed Biddeford Downs are pursuing changes in state law that would allow the Passamaquoddy Tribe to operate a separate racino in Washington County.
That racino would support the tribe and benefit the harness racing industry, but the Biddeford Downs companies have no plans to own or manage it, an official said.
On Tuesday, the proposed racino complex in Biddeford was endorsed by the city’s voters. But it faces limitations imposed by a statewide referendum in 2003.
The law allowed certain commercial harness racetracks — Scarborough Downs and Bangor Raceway — to seek local approval to operate slot machines, but imposed a deadline of Dec. 31, 2003, for them to do so. The law also stipulated that each racetrack could move within a five-mile radius of its 2002 location.
Biddeford Downs — a partnership between Scarborough Downs and Ocean Properties Ltd. — would have to change those requirements to pursue its $125 million project west of the Maine Turnpike in Biddeford.
The project also needs an exemption from the Oxford County casino initiative passed Tuesday by voters, which prohibits other gambling operations within a 100-mile radius. The referendum was initiated by Black Bear Entertainment.
Ed MacColl, a lawyer for Scarborough Downs, characterized the 2003 deadline as unfair, saying another racino developer included it to stifle competition. In reference to the five-mile radius, MacColl said voters intended to allow a racino in a southern Maine community that agreed to host one.
While voters opened the door for slot machines at racetracks in 2003 — Hollywood Slots, operated by Penn National Inc. in Bangor, is the product of that period — they rejected a plan by the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes to build a casino in southern Maine.
A racetrack in Washington County could fill the void when there is no racing in Bangor or southern Maine, said Don Marean, a member of the board of directors of the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association. The tribal racino could draw visitors from the Canadian Maritimes, he said.
“We made a commitment to endorse that and do what we can to get it passed,” Marean said. “Then it’s up to them. They have to build the track, they have to build the facility, find the investor.”
Calls to tribal leaders were not returned Wednesday.
Dennis Bailey, executive director of Casinos No!, called the tribal racino a “fig leaf” for the backers of Biddeford Downs.
“They try to present themselves as these benevolent business people interested in harness racing, interested in the state, but in reality they’re helping themselves to our money,” he said.
Biddeford Downs is already circulating petitions for a citizens initiative. It also plans to pursue the changes through the Legislature. MacColl said harness racing has enjoyed good relations with the Legislature and he expects that to continue.
Although Gov. John Baldacci has opposed the expansion of gambling, his successor, Paul LePage, may be more open in some circumstances.
“Governor-elect LePage respects the will of Maine people when it comes to these types of referendum questions,” said Dan Demeritt, a spokesman for his transition team. “To the extent that changes in laws are required, he’d be open to working with the delegations representing these communities to resolve the issues that need to be addressed.”
Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: