PORTLAND – Gov. Paul LePage on Friday reiterated his belief that Maine cannot support five casinos, and took issue with the suggestion by the mayor of Lewiston that his position has been influenced by the developer of a casino in Oxford.

LePage’s initial comments came in response to a question from the audience Thursday night as he spoke at Colby College in Waterville. He issued a statement reaffirming them Friday.

“I have a degree in finance and economics and I do not see how five casinos in Maine can be sustained,” LePage said in his statement. “We have a population of 1.3 million and we earn 82 percent of the national average per capita income. Connecticut has 3.5 million people and they can barely support two casinos.”

Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert, spokesman for a group backing a proposed casino in his city’s downtown, questioned why LePage would make such a statement just days before the Nov. 8 election.

The governor in essence was taking a position against the Lewiston casino proposal and a separate ballot question seeking approval for racetracks with slot machines in Biddeford and eastern Maine, Gilbert said.

“I find it strange he’s doing this at this time a few days before the election when he said way back he was going to leave it to the voters of Maine,” he said.

Gilbert also said he suspects that a representative of Black Bear Entertainment, which is building the Oxford casino, had discussions with the governor about the casino referendums. If other casinos are built 20 miles away in Lewiston and 55 miles away in Biddeford, the Oxford casino would lose customers.

“I seriously question whether there was some collaboration there or discussion,” Gilbert said. “I smell a rat that he said that just before the election.”

“That’s a bold-faced lie,” LePage said as he left a chamber of commerce breakfast in Jay on Friday.
Black Bear spokesman Scott Smith called Gilbert’s statement “laughable.”

“I’m quite certain the governor thinks for himself,” he said.

Question 2 on the ballot seeks voter approval for a racino in Biddeford that would be operated by Ocean Properties Ltd. and Scarborough Downs racetrack, and another racino that the Passamaquoddy Tribe would operate in or near Calais. Question 3 proposes a new casino, with slot machines and table games, in Lewiston.

If voters approve both questions, it would open the door for up to five casinos in the state. Hollywood Slots in Bangor opened six years ago, and the Oxford casino is expected to open next year.
Casino supporters say the projects would create hundreds of construction jobs and hundreds more full-time jobs once they open.

But critics have maintained that Maine doesn’t have a big enough market to support so many facilities, especially with Massachusetts legislators prepared to legalize casino gambling there.

The market potential for casino gambling in Maine ranges roughly between $250 million and $280 million in net revenues per year, according to a 2008 study by University of Maine economics Professor Todd Gabe.

Hollywood Slots has been generating about $60 million a year in net revenues – which is projected to grow to more than $75 million if it adds table games – while the Oxford casino is estimated to generate about $127 million, Gabe said. That leaves between $48 million and $93 million in potential untapped gambling revenues in Maine.

But there’s no “magic number” on how many casinos Maine can accommodate, Gabe said earlier this week.

“I guess it depends on how big you want them to be,” he said.

Casino critic Chris O’Neil, who heads a group called Mainers Against A Rotten Deal, said he welcomed LePage’s assessment of the casino market. Voters, he said, need to consider the implications of building multiple gambling sites.

The casino referendums should serve as a wake-up call for the governor and legislators for the need for a regulatory framework over the future expansion of gambling in Maine, O’Neil said.

“We don’t want the governor to fall into the trap his two predecessors fell into, which is a hands-off approach that allows this Wild West regulatory methodology,” he said.