October 22, 2010

Bill Nemitz: Numbers don't lie – or do they?

He's the "Where's Waldo?" of Maine's latest casino fight. His name comes up here, there and everywhere -- yet few if any Mainers would recognize him if he stood next to them at a blackjack table.

"It's unusual -- maybe bordering on unprecedented," Todd Gabe said in an interview Thursday. "I don't watch much network TV, but a lot of colleagues on campus tell me they've been seeing and hearing my name a lot lately."

Gabe, an associate professor at the University of Maine, is the author of UMaine's School of Economics Paper 590 -- also known as "Statewide Economic Contribution of a Proposed Resort Casino in Oxford, Maine."

He wrote the 18-page report in August at the behest of Maine Taxpayers Taking Charge, the lead group behind the Oxford County casino proposal that will go to a statewide referendum 11 short days from now.

Gabe's labors didn't come free -- in exchange for his time, effort and expertise, Maine Taxpayers Taking Charge paid $11,250 to the university's Office of Research and Sponsored Programs. And therein lie a couple of nagging questions:

Is it, as the pro-casino crowd claims every chance they get, an "independent" analysis by a highly qualified economist demonstrating, beyond a shadow of a doubt, how a casino is the best thing that could possibly happen not just to Oxford County, but the entire state of Maine?

Or is it, as the casino's opponents argue, a bought-and-paid-for campaign tool from which casino supporters can cherry pick whatever facts and figures support their cause and conveniently ignore the rest?

"I don't take a position for or against the issue," Gabe insisted. "'I wrote a study that's peer reviewed (and) all the caveats are clearly listed in the study."

He's right.

On one hand, Gabe's study forecasts that a casino in Oxford County would generate $126.7 million in gaming revenue, create 2,784 full-and part-time jobs and drop an additional $51.3 million into the tills of restaurants and hotels throughout the Oxford Hills region.

On the other, Gabe warns repeatedly throughout his analysis that it "does not show -- one way or another -- whether this can be considered 'new' economic activity to the state and region, or whether it is money that would have been spent elsewhere on other goods and services."

In other words, on the crucial question of whether a casino is indeed an economic rainmaker or merely a money vacuum that sucks everything else around it dry, the good professor wisely warns that his economic model should not be mistaken for a crystal ball.

Then there's this disclaimer: "Our analysis does not show the amount of restaurant and lodging spending that will occur within the proposed resort facility compared to the amount spent outside the Oxford casino."

And this: "If another casino begins operations in southern Maine or surrounding states subsequent to the opening of the proposed resort casino in Oxford, it would likely capture some portion of the money that we estimate would be spent at the Oxford facility."

And this: "The report does not take a position on whether gaming is positive or negative for the state of Maine. Other economic and non-economic issues need to be considered in order to determine whether the expansion of gaming is 'good' or 'bad.'"

In short, Gabe does indeed provide the casino backers the kind of numbers that any economically distressed region would salivate over. At the same time, he bends over backward to note that those numbers cannot, and should not, tell the whole story.

"Whenever I talk to people, I encourage them to check out a copy of the study. It's right there on the School of Education's website (www.umaine.edu/soe)," Gabe said.

(Continued on page 2)

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