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Vote Looming on Bill to Allow Slots At Scarborough Downs
02/24/2014   Reported By: Tom Porter

Voters in Scarborough could soon find themselves being asked once again to decide whether to allow gambling at the town's harness racing track, Scarborough Downs. This would be the fourth attempt in just over a decade to introduce gaming at the southern Maine racing facility. Tom Porter has more.

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Local businessman and gambling opponent Fred Kilfoil likens these repeated efforts to establish a casino to a multi-headed beast from Greek mythology. "It's like a Hydra," he says. "Every time you cut off a head another one pops up."

Kilfoil is with a group calling itself "No Again," which is organizing a social media campaign to oppose renewed plans to bring gaming to Scarborough - plans which come in the form of a bill before the Maine Legislature.

"I used to be on the Scarborough Economic Development Corporation, too, for many years, and we didn't see every bit of development as being good development," Kilfoil says. "We kind of made a distinction between development that was good and development that wasn't, and I see this as the latter."

Kilfoil says LD 1111 - An Act To Allow Maine's Harness Racing Industry To Compete with Casino Gaming - will promote an industry that preys on people's weakness and takes money out of the local community.

The bill's supporters include local lawmaker Amy Volk, a Republican representative from Scarborough. Volk had previously opposed the introduction of gaming to the racetrack, "but now I see it as a needed source of revenue," she says.

One of the factors that helped change her mind, she says, was the success of the casino in Bangor. "I don't think you've seen the increased crime and all of the things that people were most concerned about. It's just brought in new life to their downtown area."

Supporters of the bill point out that the state of Maine will receive a fair-market licensing fee of at least $50 million from the Scarborough casino, plus hundreds of millions of tax dollars.

For the unprofitable Scarborough Downs racetrack, meanwhile, the gaming option is viewed as a question of survival. Attorney Ed MacColl represents Scarborough Downs owner Sharon Terry.

"Mrs. Terry's trying to put together a proposal that will be great for the state, allow harness racing in Maine to survive, and allow for fair competition between the harness racing track and the casinos owned by out-of-staters that right now have a monopoly, and are putting harness racing out of business," MacColl says.

He says the lack of gambling puts the track at a competitive disadvantage. "It would be like if there were a regulation that said, 'The other radio stations can use the Internet and telephone, but you can't,'" he says. "You just can't compete in the modern era if you can't attract the wider range of fans that want to have the modern gaming."

"This legislation would more than double the number of slot machines allowed in the state," says Dan Cashman, who is among those opposing LD 1111.

But his opposition is not for the same reason that the anti-gambling group 'No Again' are opposing it. Cashman is a spokesman for Hollywood Casino in Bangor, which is concerned that Maine is not big enough to support any more gambling operations.

Recent research, says Cashman, shows that, with the gaming industry, there's a certain potential for what he calls "cannibalization."

"That means if there are too many facilities, or too many slot machines, it doesn't necessarily bring in more new business," Cashman says. "But what it does is dilute the business that's already there."

An amended version of LD 1111 is expected to be debated in the Maine House and Senate later this week, or early next week.

If enacted, the proposal would be decided by local voters only, and not by statewide referendum.

Photo of Scarborough Downs: Courtesy Scarborough Downs

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