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Wanamaker: Close vote expected in Maine gaming referendum

On Nov. 4, the citizens of Maine will finally decide the future of a proposed Indian casino in that state. After years of wrangling, the joint Passamaquoddy-Penobscot proposal for a gaming center and resort in the high-tourist southern part of this state will finally be presented to the voters. By all accounts, this ballot's too close to call.

Voters will choose whether to enact the Maine Tribal Gaming Act. The ballot question reads: "Do you want to allow a casino to be run by the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Nation if part of the revenue is used for state education and municipal revenue sharing?"

In 1980, the Maine Indian Land Claims Act settled outstanding land claims by both the Penobscots and Passamaquoddies (the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians was also a party) by providing them with $81.5 million to be used for tribal programs, business investments and, primarily, land reacquisition. In return, the tribes dropped their land claim lawsuit against the state and agreed that future federal law passed to benefit Indians, unless specifically mentioning Maine, would not apply within its borders.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, which mentions no state specifically, will thus not govern the Maine casino, technically making the operation a commercial casino and not an Indian casino.

The Maine Tribal Gaming Act earmarks 25 percent of gross slot revenue at the casino for the state; these funds are to be spent on infrastructure impact mitigation, education aid and municipal revenue sharing. The tribes, who hope for $50 million in annual profit, estimate that by the casino's fifth year, the state's annual slot take would be around $119 million. The Act may not be amended without tribal consent for 20 years.

Although IGRA's profit spending mandates will not apply to them, leaders of both tribes will likely follow its guidelines as both groups have high unemployment and other pressing social needs. Monies will be available for tribal education, housing and health care programs, business loans to tribal entrepreneurs and for other similar purposes.

The $650 million resort would sit on 362 acres in Sanford and would include 180 table games, 4,000 slot machines, a hotel/convention center and a golf course. The tribes and their backers say that the project will directly create 5,000 jobs, while another 5,000 would materialize as spin-off. The tribes' financial backer is Marnell Corrao, a Las Vegas-based developer with considerable casino experience.

Big bucks all around

Both proponents and opponents are spending big bucks to influence the electorate. According to the Portland Press-Herald, as of Oct. 10 the pro-casino group "Think About It" has gathered and spent in excess of $4.7 million to state their case, while anti-casino advocates have anted up some $1.3 million of the $2.1 million given by donors to "Casinos No."

Indeed, the pro and con arguments in Maine sound much the same as in other states' debates. The pros tout job creation and spin-off economic benefits to the surrounding communities and existing businesses - both of which have proven true with many Indian casinos. The other obvious benefit is the development of economic self-sufficiency for the tribes.

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The cons argue against traffic congestion and school overcrowding, both potentially valid points depending upon the condition of the infrastructure already in place. Also present are the usual unfounded assertions of rampant crime and corruption, the prevalence of which in Indian country casinos have been repeatedly dismissed by the General Accounting Office and Justice Department.

A number of towns in southern Maine have already held their own referenda with many rejecting the idea of a casino within their borders. From the beginning, the two tribes have insisted that they won't build the casino where it is not wanted.

Another referendum will appear on the slate - this one would legalize slot machines at Maine horseracing tracks. Track operators would get three quarters of the gross income, with the state taking 25 percent, of which none is earmarked for municipalities. A recent poll on this issue, reported in the Oct. 13 edition of the Bangor News, concluded that 63 percent of those surveyed approve of putting slots at racetracks while only 35 percent are opposed.

Recent polls measuring casino interest, however, are conflicting - some show a slight lead for the "ayes" and others give a small advantage to the "nays."

Time to tap the market

The ramifications of a Maine casino are not constrained by the state's boundaries. Many in neighboring New Hampshire have expressed concerns about negative spill-over effects into their communities, which will not receive mitigating financial compensation.

In nearby Massachusetts, the state Senate is drafting a bill to allow casino gaming; the Wampanoag (Aquinnah) tribe on Martha's Vineyard has long pushed for an Indian casino. Residents of the Bay State are numerous and frequent visitors to Connecticut's Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods casinos and Massachusetts officials seek to keep its gamblers' money at home.

Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun are giants because of their location - they tap heavily into the New York City metro market - and because they are the only two boys on the block. But a southern Maine casino would draw from the Boston area as well as New Hampshire and perhaps Vermont. Canadians and other tourists could be counted among likely patrons.

How many Down Easters make the trek down I-95 to gamble at Connecticut's Indian casinos? And how many tourists would come to or stay longer in Maine for a chance to gamble at a casino? Nobody knows for sure. As the magnitude of near-term casino prospects in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts appears rather dim at present, Maine has an excellent opportunity to enter the New England gaming market at an opportune time.

Today's global economy dictates that Maine is not going to attract industrial or manufacturing investment of any significance - the state has lost some 17,000 such jobs in the last three years. But with an already booming tourist industry along its Atlantic Coast, a casino makes a logical complement to the resorts, amusement parks, seashore and other tourist attractions that abound in the area.