August 20, 2010

Hitting the road?

In a bid for economic vitality, Scarborough Downs may seek out a community that supports slot machines – just as Biddeford takes a step in that direction

By Edward D. Murphy
Staff Writer

Scarborough Downs has a reputation as a fine neighbor, but town officials don't seem anxious to revisit a divisive debate over allowing slot machines at the harness track.

click image to enlarge

Mark Harris, a horse trainer and owner, jogs his horse, Fast Guy, before the start of live racing at the Scarborough Downs racetrack on Thursday. Scarborough voters have twice rejected proposals that would have allowed slot machines at the harness-racing facility.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Harris and Fast Guy navigate the track Thursday. Officials in Biddeford this week took a preliminary step that might entice Scarborough Downs to move.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

"I'd hate to see them go," said Town Councilor Michael Wood, "but I don't think the town is any more interested today than it has shown in the past to approve slot machines."

The Biddeford City Council this week put a proposal on its November ballot to allow a harness track and slots. If approved, it could be the first step toward moving the track out of Scarborough.

Scarborough voters have twice rejected allowing slots at the track. The first time was in 2003, when a statewide referendum gave Bangor and Scarborough the option of allowing a slot machine "racino" to operate at their commercial harness tracks.

Bangor approved the proposal and now has the Hollywood Slots racino, while Scarborough rejected it by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent.

Scarborough Downs tried again two years ago, proposing that some of the slot machine revenue go toward creating a "town center" on a new road connecting Route 1 and Payne Road, but that plan was narrowly defeated, 5,797 votes to 5,557.

Wood said the close votes suggest the town is sharply divided over the issue and that neither side is likely to want to debate it again.

Another councilor, Karen D'Andrea, said rumors have been floating for months that Scarborough Downs might be looking to move to a community that would support slots -- the track's owners say they need the revenue to support harness racing.

But that hasn't spurred any noticeable effort to keep the track in town.

"I don't know of anybody (suggesting that)," she said.

Wood and D'Andrea said they don't think most residents want the track to leave. But slot machines are a different matter.

"They've got no beef with the racetrack. People are fine with that," D'Andrea said. "I'd be happy to see Scarborough Downs remain in Scarborough -- they've been a great community partner. But I don't agree with the racino part of things."

Edward MacColl, the lawyer for Scarborough Downs, said he's had no contact with Scarborough about the possible move, other than to give town officials a heads-up earlier this week that the Biddeford Council would be voting on the referendum question.

Scarborough Downs pays about $120,000 in property taxes. If the racetrack moves, the building would be devalued to reflect the vacancy, but that would probably cut the total bill by only about $10,000, town officials said.

Biddeford officials said they're interested in the jobs a racetrack-slot business could bring. Scarborough Downs estimates that a racino would provide nearly 900 permanent jobs, MacColl said.

Winning Biddeford's support for the racino would only be the first step for Scarborough Downs.

The 2003 referendum gave the state's commercial tracks in Bangor and Scarborough until the end of the year to find a community willing to accept a racino, so lawmakers would have to either approve a law allowing a racino in Biddeford or put that question to state voters.

Also, a proposal for an Oxford County casino would bar any other new gambling facilities within 100 miles for 10 years. Biddeford would need an exemption.

Finally, Scarborough Downs would have to work out an agreement with Biddeford on its cut of the revenue -- Bangor gets 1 percent of Hollywood Slots' net, which was nearly $60 million in 2009 -- plus other issues, such as traffic control.

MacColl said Scarborough Downs lost money last year, even with a cut of the Hollywood Slots revenue earmarked by law to support harness racing.

The idea of moving to Biddeford, MacColl said, has the support of Sharon Terry, owner of Scarborough Downs, who has said "she'll do what she can to save the business and the sport, including relocating" to a community that will accept slot machines.

MacColl said Terry has indicated she's looking forward to explaining the benefits of a racino to Biddeford voters.

Mark Maroon, a leading opponent of a racino in Scarborough, said Biddeford voters can expect an expensive campaign to build support for slot machines.

Maroon said he doesn't buy the argument that saving harness racing is the goal, either in Scarborough or Biddeford.

"This has never been about horses, it's always been about money," he said.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:


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