2014-04-04 / Front Page

Could legislation allow casino gambling in neighboring town?

By Michael Kelley
Staff Writer

Scarborough Downs officials are searching for new ways to potentially bring casino gambling to the harness racing facility now that a piece of legislation that could have allowed it has been nixed at the state house.

Last week, the state Senate voted to kill a piece of legislation that could have allowed a racino to be built at Scarborough Downs, a 64-year-old harness racing facility between Payne Road and Route 1.

“We are just going to wait and see what happens,” said Susan Higgins, marketing and group sales director. “They are going to regroup and possibly consider a more comprehensive gambling initiative. When that happens we will see what can be done.”

The legislation, “LD 1111: An Act to Allow Maine’s Harness Racing Industry to Compete with Casino Gambling,” which was submitted on behalf of Scarborough Downs, would have allowed slot machines at harness racing facility pending local voters’ approval or at a different location—possibly Biddeford— pending a passage of a countywide vote. The bill would have required the facility be upgraded to a “resort” with a 100-room hotel, pool or spa, dining restaurant and en- tertainment facility, before slots could operate. A view of the harness racing track would have been required from the restaurant or slot machine facility.

The House of Representatives approved the legislation March 12, but it failed to get the support it needed from the Senate to move forward.

The legislation, however, did get the support of one local group.

On March 21 the Scarborough Community Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors announced they had voted to support the legislation because it would allow towns and cities to “decide for themselves about proposed casino developments.” The board, however, reserved judgment on any “proposed development, including casino gambling, in Scarborough.”

While officials at Scarborough Downs were disappointed with the Senate’s denial, it was welcome news for No Again, a grassroots group that was formed last year to keep a racino out of Scarborough.

“We are very happy with the vote. It wasn’t easy. We had to work hard to talk with our legislators,” said Suzanne Foley-Ferguson, a member of the No Again group, adding the group was disappointed in Sen. James Boyle, who represents part of Scarborough, voted to support the casino legislation.

The work for No Again, Foley-Ferguson said, is not done.

“It is not over for us. We are going to continue to work to keep a racino out of Scarborough,” she said.

“We think the best decision for the state and the best decision for the town was made, she continued.

The group may try to find an unenrolled candidate to run for Senate, since both Boyle, a Democrat and state Rep. Amy Volk, a Republican— who are running against each other this November to represent District 30 in the state senate—support the gambling legislation.

District 30 is a newly crafted Senate district that encompasses Gorham and part of Scarborough.

Higgins said it is unlikely that the more comprehensive look at gambling statewide would occur this session of the legislature, which mean it would be pushed off until after the November elections.

“It probably won’t happen this session, so we will have to reeducate a new set of legislators about this industry, but we are in it for the long haul,” Higgins said.

Scarborough Downs has been trying to bring gaming to the facility for more than a decade, but has yet to get the approval of town voters. In 2003, a local referendum that would bring a racino to Scarborough failed by 941 votes. In 2008, the last time voters weighed in on the subject, it failed by 239 votes. Ed MacColl, who has served as the attorney for Scarborough Downs and its owner Sharon Terry for 20 years, has said Terry is dedicated to saving the harness racing industry and a racino would help her accomplish that.

Higgins said Scarborough Downs is not ready to stop fighting for a racino.

“We are not going to give up. We are going to continue to fight and continue to advocate for what’s best for the horsemen and the people of this state,” Higgins said.

If opening weekend is any indication, this could be a busy summer at Scarborough Downs.

“I haven’t seen it that busy in a long time,” Higgins said of the season opening Saturday, March 29. “We definitely encourage people to come out to see what we are fighting for, because it is great fun.”

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