November 3, 2010

Proposal for Oxford County casino leading – by a nose

Developers say the $165 million facility would create 1,700 jobs and generate $60 million in state revenue.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

NORWAY — Among the tasks for Maine voters Tuesday was deciding whether a casino should be built in Oxford County.

If Question 1 passes, voters will have approved the first casino in Maine allowing table games, such as blackjack and poker.

A group of wealthy families behind the proposal spent more than $3 million to persuade voters to approve the measure. Opponents spent less than $600,000 on their campaign.

Question 1 on Tuesday's ballot was leading in the returns as soon as precincts began reporting results, but the lead narrowed as more votes were counted. At 11:30 p.m., with 34 percent of precincts reporting, the proposal was leading, 51 percent to 49 percent.

Black Bear Entertainment, the company that was formed to promote and develop the casino, has yet to identify a location, but company officials say they are looking at five sites on Route 26 in Oxford.

One of the company's partners is Robert Lally, co-owner of the Mount Abram ski resort. He said the company plans to build a $165 million, 100,000-square-foot casino and resort in phases over five years.

With voters' approval, he said, the company plans to hire engineers and planners immediately to help it select a site and begin the permitting process. He said his company would announce the team today.

The company said the casino and resort would create more than 1,700 year-round jobs and generate at least $60 million in revenue that would be directed to specific state programs. More than half of the money would be used to fund education programs statewide, including money for K-12 education and scholarships to state universities and community colleges.

Construction itself would create 800 jobs, said John Napolitano, president of the Maine State Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents 13 trade unions.

"Private investment like this is good," he said. " There will be plenty of jobs."

Napolitano was waiting for election results with Yes on 1 supporters at a party Tuesday night at DiMillo's Floating Restaurant in Portland. Also at DiMillo's were Black Bear investors Lally and Stephen Barber, former president of Barber Foods in Portland. There were about 60 people at the party initially, but the crowd dwindled to about 25 as returns came in.

In Oxford, Maurice's Restaurant on Route 26 was hopping by 8 p.m., filled with casino supporters.

Strobe lights darted off the front entrance, where supporters of Yes on 1 were greeted by Derek Lovely, an Oxford native who was named Cosmopolitan magazine's most eligible bachelor in Maine last month.

Inside, several owners of Black Bear Entertainment mingled, including Suzanne and Rupert Grover.

"We're excited, win or lose," Suzanne Grover said. "We wanted to celebrate our community. It's what it's all about. We'll be here until it's over."

The Grovers were joined by fellow investors Jim Boldebook of Alfred and Peter Martin of Waterville.

"We decided this was economic development for our area. We need to get people jobs," Suzanne Grover said.

Waitresses in fishnet stockings passed appetizers, and supporters spun a roulette wheel.

"These initiatives are always close," Martin said. "We think this is the year. We think this resort's time has come."

Another investor, Bob Bahre, former owner of the Oxford Plains Speedway, and his wife, Sandy Bahre, were expected later in the evening.

In the studio above Cafe Nomad in downtown Norway, Zizi and Scott Vlaun gathered with 50 supporters of Oxford Hills No on 1, a grass-roots campaign that came together late this summer.

The group, in a nutshell, questions the true economic impact that a casino would have on the area's economy.

"This resilient, diversified economy so many people have worked to build, I feel that could be destroyed," said Scott Vlaun, a photographer and editor.

(Continued on page 2)

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