A group of Scarborough residents against bringing slot machines to town has been anticipating a third local referendum on the issue – practically since the last one was defeated.
“Like a bad penny, it’s going to keep coming back,” said Susan Wilder, who worked to get residents to reject the last two slot-machine proposals and is a member of No Again, a group preparing for a potential third townwide vote.
The likelihood of another referendum in Scarborough increased this week when the Maine House of Representatives approved a bill that would allow a harness racetrack to have slot machines and Scarborough Downs revealed that it would prefer to add them at its current location rather than move to Biddeford, where residents have already agreed to allow a so-called racino.
Scarborough voters rejected slot machines in 2003, with 56 percent opposed, and again in 2008, with 51 percent opposed.
Although it remains a contentious issue in town, some believe enough people have changed their mind to make a difference.
“I’ve heard from several people who voted against it last time that they’re more open to it now,” said Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, who voted in favor of the bill Wednesday.
She said some of those people changed their minds after visiting Hollywood Casino in Bangor.
Ed MacColl, a lawyer representing Scarborough Downs, said he believes the casinos in Bangor and Oxford could help sway the vote by showing that some of the opposition’s arguments – such as slot machines bringing an increase in crime – aren’t true. “You have no more bad things associated with these businesses than a movie theater,” he said.
If it’s true that public opinion has shifted, Wilder’s group could be facing its most difficult battle to date.“It will be a hard struggle,” she said.
The core members of No Again are the same people who were involved in past anti-racino efforts in Scarborough, Wilder said, though the group has gone by different names.
She said they’ve been meeting since last summer, when the Town Council adopted new zoning for the 500-acre property that includes Scarborough Downs to allow slot machines with residents’ approval.
Before then, the zoning had prohibited slot machines.
MacColl said he believes the 2008 ballot question, which asked residents whether to allow slot machines and change the zoning, was confusing and could have generated more “no” votes because of that.
By changing the zoning through the council, another referendum would ask only about slot machines.
“People will understand the question,” said MacColl.
But the other hurdles that Scarborough Downs has faced – namely deep-pocketed competitors in the gambling industry – are likely to be back.
So far, however, No Again seems to be the only opposition group with its sights set on Scarborough residents.
John Porter, president and chief executive officer of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce, said his group and others concerned about the effect of bringing another casino to the state are focused on the Legislature for now.
“I think people are working it on that level,” he said.
The Maine Senate is expected to take up the bill on Thursday.
Members of Mainers Against a Rotten Deal, which opposed gambling proposals in Biddeford and statewide, are paying attention to the bill’s progress, said spokesman Chris O’Neil.
“We’re evaluating what our next steps are and we should know soon,” he said.
Maine Friends of Animals, a group that believes harness racing is cruel to horses, has opposed racinos before and will again if it comes to a vote in Scarborough, said President Robert Fisk Jr. “We’re following it closely,” he said.
No Again’s reasons for opposing slot machines at Scarborough Downs are about traffic and quality of life – and also how becoming a destination for gambling would change what the town is all about, said Wilder.
“Any company with a predatory business model that relies on ignorance and deception to take money from people isn’t part of my vision for Scarborough,” she said.
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: