OXFORD—The Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce (OHCC) Board of Directors and management at the Oxford Casino have unofficially teamed up for the upcoming legislative session to let politicians know they whole heartedly oppose another casino opening in the state, which they say will negatively affect Western Maine.
The board of directors released a letter on Nov. 5 touting the economic benefits the Oxford Hills region has experienced since the Route 26 casino opened its doors in 2012. It also noted how easy it would be for Oxford County to take a step backwards economically if another casino opened in Southern Maine.
“Does Southern Maine need this? I guess the argument could be made that they don’t. That area of the state continues to be very active in terms of development,” OHCC Executive Director John Williams said by phone last week, noting Oxford Hills has been hard hit economically for a number of years with the loss of factories and businesses, coupled with lots of people out of work. “We support the economic development opportunities associated with the casino being here. The chamber is looking out on behalf of all of the businesses in Oxford Hills.”
Maine has two casinos—Oxford Casino and Hollywood Casino in Bangor. The opposition to another casino in the state partially comes from a stated-commissioned $150,000 study by WhiteSand Gaming that looked at additional gambling opportunities in Maine. The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee appropriated the funds in April, and the study’s results were released in September. It said it’s feasible for Maine to be home to a third casino in the southern portion of the state, with close proximity to the Interstate 95 corridor, but would take profits away from the existing casinos, including an estimated 20 percent from Oxford Casino.
Oxford Casino Vice President and General Manager Jack Sours said by phone on Tuesday that the WhiteSand study, and one the Oxford Casino commissioned about a year ago by renowned casino market expert Dr. Clyde Barrow, show why the casino opposes a third opening in Maine.
“We’re going to work with the Legislature this upcoming session to help them to understand our position, which is any expansion is going to cannibalize what we have in Oxford,” he said, adding that the Barrow study showed the casino could lose up to 50 percent of its business. “That’s going to cost jobs and it’s going to cost economic development in rural Maine, where the people voted to put in a casino.”
The chamber letter included information on job growth from the casino with the current 404 employees at the casino, which breaks down to 340 full-time employees and 64 part-timers, according to Oxford Casino Advertising and Public Relations Coordinator Jane McClay Hoyt. And they’re hiring more people, she added. The letter pointed to the millions of dollars generated from the casino, with nearly $1.3 million going to the town of Oxford in 2013, according to the state’s Gambing Control Board website, and roughly $624,000 coming in for Oxford County last year, County Administrator Scott Cole said.
While complete demographics weren’t available as of press time, McClay Hoyt did shed some light on who comes to the casino.
“Oxford Casino services all of Southern Maine and receives visitors from other states who come to experience the unique beauty of our area and amenities our facility has to offer,” she said via email Tuesday.
The consensus for the chamber board and casino management is people won’t bypass a Southern Maine casino to head to Oxford Casino.
According to chamber board member Glen Holmes, the chamber’s Legislative Committee plans to contact the state’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, along with any member from the Maine Statehouse who represents Oxford County, to share its stance, which implores them to keep casinos as a citizens’ initiative on the ballot.
“The message really is rural Maine has struggled for a long time and this is something that has helped rural Maine and it doesn’t seem appropriate for the state government to take away something that’s working,” he said Tuesday. “In a more holistic approach, from the economic point of view, the state of Maine needs to not be changing its rules all the time.”
As far as state Senator and Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee member John Patrick, D-Rumford, is concerned, the window of opportunity for a Southern Maine casino already closed 10 years ago. He said Scarborough had an entire year to get the approval it needed to get it on a referendum for voters to decide on and that didn’t happen. And he thinks the Oxford Casino fulfilled the requirement approved by voters by allowing two casinos to run in the state of Maine.
“I don’t necessarily think Maine can sustain four or five profitable casinos. … I don’t think we need another one in Southern Maine,” he said by phone on Tuesday, noting he believed Oxford Casino stood to lose between 40 and 50 percent of its business if another casino opened in Southern Maine. “To me that’s not fair. … I think what Oxford Casino was originally planning on doing has been held up because it’s hard for a business to spend capital if they don’t know if another business is going to be taking their business away.”
The aforementioned parties—the chamber and its board, Oxford Casino officials and Patrick—worry that a third casino in Southern Maine would nip Oxford County’s economic growth in the bud. Across from the casino is the site of soon-to-be-built Hampton Inn, and a number of restaurants have expressed interest in coming to Oxford, along with the idea of creating a shopping and conference center in the general area of the casino.
“We are trying hard to continue the momentum around the development here,” Williams said. “The possibilities of those things would be severely diminished if another casino was built in Southern Maine.”
According to the WhiteSand study, if a third casino was built in Southern Maine, the state could support a fourth casino in the northern reaches of the state in Arootook or Washington County, away from the others to minimize cannibalization from the three facilities. While Patrick hasn’t officially heard of any casino bills being worked on for the upcoming session, he predicts at least three will be presented, including ones with support from the Passamaquoddy and Maliseet tribes.
“The tribal ones don’t bother me as much because they’re beyond the market of the two existing businesses,” Patrick said, adding these would play to smaller, niche markets.
State Sen. Jim Hamper, R-Oxford, said he didn’t disagree with the chamber board’s position and thought it was a well-written letter.
“For me personally I’ve always been against the expansion of gaming. It’s a very easy position for me to take,” he said by phone on Monday. “The lobbyists know they’re not going to get an expansion vote out of me.”