The campaign for Question 2 on Maine’s Nov. 8 ballot has been focused so far on a racino proposed in Biddeford. Largely overlooked has been the ballot question’s other proposal, for a racino 197 miles away in Washington County.
Today, the measure’s proponents will open a campaign office on Main Street in Calais, the city that would host the racino.
While the two proposals are linked, they are quite different from each other.
For one thing, the Biddeford Downs project already has two prospective developers, Ocean Properties Ltd. and Scarborough Downs, which say they are ready to invest $120 million to build a racetrack, a resort hotel and a slot machine facility in Biddeford.
Ocean Properties, based in Portsmouth, N.H., is bankrolling the Yes on 2 campaign. It loaned the campaign $780,000 during the third quarter of this year, according to the latest campaign finance report.
The racino proposed for Washington County does not yet have a developer. And the Passamaquoddy Tribe, which would own the racino, is not spending its own money on the campaign, beyond having two tribal members staff the office in Calais.
Tribal leaders say they won’t spend money on the project before the election. That is in stark contrast to 2007, when the tribe contributed nearly $800,000 to an unsuccessful referendum campaign for a racino.
While Washington County voters overwhelmingly approved the measure, voters statewide rejected it 52 percent to 48 percent.
The defeat left the tribe in such financial straits that it had to cut some basic services on its reservation, such as snow plowing, said Joseph Socobasin, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township.
The tribe doesn’t want to take any more money from programs on the reservation, he said.
Clayton Cleaves, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point, said the tribe, if it wanted another shot at a racino, had no choice but to join the proponents of Biddeford Downs.
“We are locked in with them,” he said. “Being financially indigent, we are not able to fully campaign.”
As a result, the tribe has had relatively little control over the campaign. Cleaves and Socobasin said they are concerned that the campaign’s television commercials and literature so far have focused on the Biddeford racino.
That’s unfortunate, they say, because the tribe’s case for a racino in Washington County is compelling.
The main argument is that the jobs are needed Down East. Washington County’s unemployment rate in August was 9.3 percent — nearly 2 percentage points above the state average.
Because their racino would operate near one of the busiest international border crossings in the United States, tribal leaders expect that many customers would come from Charlotte County in New Brunswick.
The combined spending of Maine residents, Charlotte County residents and out-of-state visitors could generate an estimated $12 million to $13 million a year in slot machine revenue, according to a 2007 study by the University of Maine, the most recent one commissioned by the tribe.
The Washington County racino has the support of the city of Calais and all of the chamber groups in Washington County, where voters in 2007 supported the racino proposal 70 percent to 30 percent.
John Marchese, who owns the Calais Motor Inn, said the business community is still upset that Maine voters rejected the racino four years ago. “We really needed it, and were devastated that it didn’t happen,” he said.
He drained the hotel’s pool 2½ years ago because of the recession. If a racino gets built, he said, travelers will have another reason to stay overnight in Calais, and he’ll have enough business to fill the pool again.
The Passamaquoddy Tribe has been trying to build a gambling resort for nearly 20 years but has been rejected each time. Meanwhile, voters have approved gaming facilities proposed by other groups: a racino in Bangor and a casino in Oxford.
“I think public sentiment is slowly changing,” Socobasin said, “that tribes have been left out. It’s a fairness issue.”
Maine Senate President Kevin Raye, a Republican from the Washington County town of Perry, said many people in the county feel the same way.
“There is a sense of having been passed by that is very troubling to people down here,” Raye said.
Crystal Canney, spokeswoman for the Yes on 2 campaign, said it has initially focused on the Biddeford project because it’s farther along in the development process, but the campaign will air television commercials about the tribe and its plans for a racino.
The plan to combine proposals for racinos in Washington County and southern Maine was developed in May 2010, in a meeting in Augusta that involved tribal leaders and various groups related to the harness racing industry, such as horse breeders and agricultural fair operators, said Ed MacColl, attorney for Scarborough Downs.
Including the tribe was “the right thing to do,” he said.
It also may have been a savvy move, because Washington County, the tribe and Scarborough Downs have their own strong areas of political support with the Legislature and with voters, said Chris O’Neil of Mainers Against a Rotten Deal, a group that’s opposing Question 2 and Question 3, which proposes a casino in Lewiston.
As long as Maine continues to use the referendum process to decide where to locate gaming facilities, voters deserve the right to judge each proposal on its own merits, he said, rather than as part of a package.
O’Neil said the tribe’s leaders should not depend on a big company like Ocean Properties to make their case.
“They should fight their own battle and come up with their own proposal,” he said.
MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: [email protected]