One of my early attractions to newsrooms was the intriguing collection of characters and rogues who practiced their craft in settings that were mostly dark and dingy but somehow conveyed an energy that was both raw and fine-tuned.
They reminded me of my days at the racetrack as a kid. The track was a place that not only offered an oasis for a horse lover but also put you in the midst of hardscrabble men and women who eked out a living in a tough and unforgiving sport.
At both places, the newspaper and the track, you found hard-working people who had the glint of adventure in their eyes, who relied on wits and talent to survive and felt no need to conform to the structure of society beyond their own environment. Those who worked there, in fact, often created their own society of friends who depended mostly on one another, exclusive of the outside world.
Racetracks, horses and horsemen held an allure and fascination for me. In Maine, there is a strong tradition of harness racing that is a way of life for many, both as a job and as a spectator sport.
We have a chance this week to preserve that sport, to help it grow and continue to be part of a tradition that makes us special.
Question 2 on Tuesday’s election ballot, if approved, will provide a shot in the arm for Biddeford and Washington County by allowing development of “racinos” featuring harness tracks and slot machines.
Have you been to either Biddeford or Washington County lately? I have, and they need economic help.
It’s that simple. Building these facilities will immediately create construction and real-estate related jobs and put money in Maine workers’ pockets. Once built, the facilities will need many full and part-time employees.
Hollywood Slots in Bangor says it has more than 400 employees and attracts up to 80,000 visitors a year. Drawing from the close proximity to New Hampshire and Massachusetts, can you imagine how many people will come to Biddeford?
Reilly’s Bakery, a generation-upon-generation business in downtown Biddeford, will have to double its shifts to keep up with all the people buying cream rolls and lemon meringue pies.
Through the years, I have owned and run a newspaper in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. In that town, Mohegan Sun bought a racetrack, put in slots, and now is developing a world-class hotel. The racino has already drawn restaurants to the facility, including a Ruth’s Chris Steak House. The owners have given generously of time and money to Wilkes-Barre and surrounding communities. They have changed life there, for the better.
Ocean Properties will develop the Biddeford project and it has a long history of developing world-class hotels and other properties. If you want an example of how Ocean Properties has positively affected a single community, take a drive to Bar Harbor. The beauty of the drive will do your soul good, and even though the tourists are gone, you will see that the town’s best hotels are those owned and operated by a Maine family’s company, Ocean Properties.
Or go to the Samoset in Rockland to see how Ocean Properties restored what is among the state’s most famous resorts and golf courses.
My Bangor roots give me solid knowledge of Ocean Properties’ owners, Tom Walsh and his family.
I grew up hearing stories about the entrepreneurial efforts of Tommy Walsh. He built the Holiday Inn and he built this and he built that, the stories went, and then he expanded his business around the country and later around the world. There is no better example of a man from humble Bangor/Brewer beginnings who through hard work, incredible focus and grit became a success, improved communities and provided thousands and thousands of jobs.
Now in his 80s, he is still as hard-working and focused as ever. He’s still growing his company and he’s never lost his dedication to Maine.
The Biddeford racino developers have promised that revenues from the track and facility will put about $35 million back into the state: A total of $32 million will go into the state’s general fund and there will be a guarantee of $3 million for college scholarships.
And to those who are either opposed to slot machines or are saying that we have enough casinos in Maine with one in Bangor and another under construction in Oxford, I say: Are you nuts?
Ever heard of free enterprise?
This is not a case of the “Field of Dreams” line, “Build it and they will come.”
No. This is a case of build one closer to Maine’s largest population, in Southern Maine, and build one in a remote part of the state, Washington County. Then let them compete in the open, fair, free-enterprise market.
And slot machines?
We have the lottery. We have pari-mutuel racing. Betting, gambling, games of chance are all around us, all the time.
Personally, I love it all. Before I was old enough to look a racetrack teller in the eye, I’d stand around the betting window at the Bangor track, waiting for some family friend to come around and place a bet for me.
When I was older, but still a teenager, I did odd jobs at tracks. I drove the water truck, jogged a few horses, sold programs and tip sheets at county fairs.
I loved the life around the tracks and their Damon Runyonesque characters.
As I traveled the country working for newspapers, I lived in cities with harness racing tracks, but none had the feel and tradition of Maine tracks.
The racino in Biddeford will be a far cry from the circuit I frequented in Maine many years ago. It will be first class and a destination for dinner, entertainment and a caliber of harness racing this state has never seen.
We have a Maine family prepared to spend at least $120 million to give us a chance at jobs, a chance to improve Biddeford, and a chance to preserve and grow the great Maine tradition of harness racing.
And if you look at a map from east to west and north to south, we will be giving people in all areas of the state a chance to benefit, as Bangor has and as Oxford surely will, from economic growth and jobs and tourists. And the state will get more money.
We need to approve Question 2. It’s a safe bet.
Richard L. Connor is CEO of MaineToday Media, owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. A newspaperman for 40 years, he has served on two Pulitzer Prize for Journalism nominating committees. He can be reached at: [email protected]