NORWAY — Kerry and Tom Hewson moved here four months ago from suburban Detroit after deciding that Oxford County would be a wholesome place to raise their two children. They wouldn’t have come here if they had known they could be living near a casino, Kerry Hewson said.

She said casinos promote a culture of “fast living” and “cheap thrills” and would undermine the work ethic and traditional family values for which rural Maine is known.

“Casinos don’t belong here,” she said. “They belong someplace else.”

But Oxford County is far from paradise, said Don Winkler of Norway, who is leading his church’s effort to help people who are out of work or homeless. The county’s unemployment rate – more than 10 percent for most of this year – is among the highest in Maine.

Winkler said he will vote “yes” on Question 1 on Maine’s Nov. 2 ballot, which would allow a casino in Oxford County.

“Poverty is hard on families,” he said. “The resort is going to provide good jobs that are going to keep families together.”

For many Maine voters, Question 1 is just another item on the ballot. Here in Oxford County, the issue is widely debated, with strong feelings on both sides.

Although no site has been selected, the project’s investors say it would be built on Route 26 in Oxford.

The Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce is leading the local effort to support the measure, which was put on the ballot after an investment group called Black Bear Entertainment gathered about 105,000 petition signatures.

The group includes prominent business people such as Bob and Gary Bahre, former owners of the Oxford Plains Speedway; Rupert and Suzanne Grover, who founded Grover Gundrilling, a specialty drilling company in Norway; and Robert Lally Jr., co-owner of the Mount Abram Family Ski Resort in Greenwood.

The opposition is led by Zizi and Scott Vlaun of Norway, who until recently published Oxford Hills Magazine in conjunction with the chamber. The couple said they have decided to quit producing the magazine because the chamber wants them to use it to promote the casino.

History suggests that Oxford County residents will vote in favor of Question 1.

Although they voted overwhelmingly in 2003 to reject a casino proposed for Sanford, they voted 60 percent to 40 percent in 2008 to support a ballot measure that would have allowed a casino in Oxford County. That proposal failed statewide.

Its supporters say the casino would provide economic opportunities, creating 1,700 permanent jobs in the planned $165 million resort and boosting local businesses by luring more tourists to the area.

When supporters of Question 1 are asked why they back the measure, they invariably have a one-word answer: Jobs.

Manufacturing jobs have disappeared from the county, and there’s not much of a future for young people, said Carl Roberts Sr., 64, of Greenwood.

“There are no jobs up here. Nothing,” he said.

Ed Stevens, 64, of Sumner said employees at the Hollywood Slots racino in Bangor have told him they enjoy their jobs and are paid well.

Even people who don’t like the idea of gambling say the allure of jobs is compelling.

Kathy Pickett of Oxford, who manufactures dog sled equipment, said opponents of Question 1 aren’t providing any alternatives.

“Nobody has given us any other options,” she said.

Opponents of Question 1 say the argument that the casino would create jobs is false because most of the casino’s revenue would come out of the pockets of Maine residents, leaving less money to be spent in local restaurants and stores.

“Casinos suck all the money into casinos, and then it goes to the Las Vegas operators,” said Jeff Rosenblatt, 62, of Albany Township, an unorganized territory near Bethel.

Paul Hausman, 60, also of Albany Township, said the casino would never be a destination for people from outside Maine, as the promoters have claimed.

“Why would anybody go to Oxford, Maine, when they could go to Foxwoods and a first-class resort? It’s not going to happen,” he said.

If a casino is built here, everyone in Maine will consider Oxford County a “casino community,” which would make it harder for the region to establish an identity as a cultural destination, said Aranka Matolcsy, executive director of the Mahoosuc Arts Council.

“A casino erodes the face of a small community,” she said. “The entire aspect of a community is limited to being a casino town.”


Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: [email protected]