March 4, 2010

Ski area owner quits effort for casino in Oxford County

MATT WICKENHEISER

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click image to enlarge

Staff Photo by Gordon Chibroski, Tue, Jan 30, 2001: Matt Hancock shows a map containing the parcels of land owned by Hancock Lumber (in blue) and points to the area where the 5,000 acres are that had its development rights sold to a conservation group by his family. Action is in the Hancock Lumber Land Office.

Staff Writer

One of the businessmen who have been exploring a casino proposal for Oxford County has pulled out, though a spokesman for the remaining partners said they're still looking at options and plan to make a final decision this week.

Matt Hancock, a former principal in Hancock Lumber and Hancock Land, bought the Mount Abram ski area last year, and said the business requires his entire focus.

He said that a campaign to legalize a casino in Oxford County would likely be contentious and take too much of his attention.

''While I fully support a resort casino's intended benefits of job creation and economic growth for Oxford County I have decided not to remain involved in the direction and/or promotion of it,'' Hancock said in a written statement. ''The attention to monitor and impact a consistent direction in a 14-month, testy campaign was more than I had to give.''

Hancock said in a phone interview that he oversees the operations at Mount Abram. His investment partner in the ski area, Rob Lally, a real estate developer, remains involved in Black Bear Entertainment, the group that's exploring the casino concept.

The group is led by Stephen Barber of Cape Elizabeth, the retired president of Barber Foods in Portland. Others in the exploratory group include Suzanne and Rupert Grover, founders of Grover Gun Drilling Inc. of Norway. Suzanne Grover is also president of the Oxford Fair, according to the fair's Web site.

On Monday, Peter Martin, a spokesman for the group, said it plans to announce its decision Thursday on how, or if, it will proceed with a casino proposal.

''We're considering all options still,'' said Martin. ''We should be able to, within the next 48 hours or so, come to the final conclusion on what direction we're going to take with the project.''

Hancock has said that if the group decides to move forward with a casino proposal, it will seek to put a bill before the Legislature this winter. If the Legislature were to turn down the proposal, the group would want it to go before voters in November 2010.

Gambling initiatives in Maine have fallen short in recent years, except for a racino in Bangor. Voters turned down legislation in November 2008 that would have legalized a casino in Oxford County. They also have turned down casino proposals for Down East Maine and Sanford.

CasinosNO! would fight any new proposal for an Oxford County casino, its spokesman Dennis Bailey has said.

After its defeat at the polls last year, the idea of an Oxford County casino got another try in the Legislature.

Rep. H. Sawin Millett Jr., R-Waterford, submitted legislation to allow a casino in the county. The Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee did not endorse it, the House rejected it 90-55 and the Senate rejected it 27-0.

If Black Bear Entertainment decides to pursue citizen-initiated legislation, it will have to collect 55,087 voters' signatures by Feb. 1.

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

mwickenheiser@pressherald.com

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