Among Southern Maine Business Owners, Support For Casino A Crapshoot

Oct 13, 2017

In less than a month, Maine voters will decide whether to permit a casino to open up at a so-far undecided location in York County. Opinions in the county’s business community vary sharply about whether a casino would help their economic prospects or hurt them.

In the former mill towns of Biddeford and Saco, which straddle the Saco River, there’s a buzz in the air.

Since the last textile plant closed for good eight years ago, the communities have made a pretty quick transition to a revitalized, 21st-century version of themselves. Mills have morphed into condos, startup factories, and breweries. Transplants fleeing rising costs in Portland — and Brooklyn, for that matter — are moving in.

When Jeannie Dunnigan and her husband opened a second version of their South Portland coffee shop, CIA, they chose Saco, not Portland.

“When we came to Saco we’re closer to the river, the Ferry Beach, the state park, and the demographics in Saco is great. It’s a growing community. A lot of young people, a lot of older folks. And it’s just a beautiful place to start,” she says.

Like many people in York County, Dunnigan isn’t quite sure what to make of the casino proposal.

“As far as having it in my backyard? If they put it in the right location — I mean to have something to pop up in your county that’s going to attract people to come and experience an art event or entertainment, I think it’s fabulous,” she says.

The company behind the casino campaign has promised the kind of entertainment opportunities Dunnigan imagines, but the actual ballot item includes no requirement for such facilities. That doesn’t bother Craig Pendleton, executive director of the Biddeford and Saco Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“I think it’s a great opportunity,” he says.

Pendleton’s board hasn’t taken a position on the ballot item, but he says he met with the man who’s pushing it, casino developer Shawn Scott, last month.

Scott told Pendleton the facility might land at an Old Orchard Beach campground, about halfway between the Maine Turnpike and Saco Bay. Whether there or somewhere else in the county, Pendleton says it would benefit the beach towns.

“And so they’re going to get in the car and they’re going to go explore, or they’re going to jump on the bus, because our bus system’s pretty good, and they’re going to go explore. So yeah, we’re going to gamble at night and we’re going to go down to the beach in the daytime,” he says.

And Jim Albert, owner of Jimmy the Greek’s restaurant just across the street from that Old Orchard Beach campground, is cheering.

“This is a seasonal community, and many businesses and hotels shut down, and being in the hospitality business I would love more, meaning a stable year-round economic base, and this would only enhance that,” he says.

It’s by no means a universal view in York County business circles.

“It would take an awful lot of evidence to convince me that it’s going to be any kind of positive force for the economy,” says David Flood, a former area newspaper owner who sits on the board of a downtown Biddeford promotion group.

Flood worked against a casino proposal in Biddeford in 2013, and he opposes this one, too. He’s a native of Dover, Delaware, where he says a casino moved in two decades ago.

“The downtown is completely dead. And a casino doesn’t bring anything else. If you go to a big box store, at least if you’re buying clothes or you’re buying food, at least you get something for it,” he says. “All a casino does is take money out. And they always take money out. It would be a horrible addition to the area.”

Even in towns with struggling economies, which might seem ripe for a pitch by casino developers, there is opposition. In Sanford, Mayor Tom Cote says the city has more productive projects in mind, including a tech-oriented high school, a new fiber optic network and a big solar energy park.

The mayor seems almost insulted that Scott, whose representatives wrote the ballot item, would sluice just 1 percent of revenues to the casino’s host municipality.

“I think the offer is weak,” Cote says. “That’s not how a public-private partnership gets started.”

Cote likes the idea of added jobs, but he suspects the regional casino market is pretty saturated, with the Oxford casino to the north and a new project under construction in Everett, Massachusetts.

“Probably initially the casino would do well, and then that would tail off. And what does that really look like to the community if you hire 1,500 people, and that turns into 1,000 people. What we don’t want here is a bunch of unemployed people in five years or 10 years. So I don’t get lost in the idea of grand revenue around these things, I look at the sort of sustainability of it all,” he says.

Back in Biddeford, Molly Bull pours a craft beer in an old mill overlooking a Saco River waterfall. She and her husband built the Dirigo Brewing Co. there last year, and so far, so good. She says the idea of a casino gives her pause, because she’s concerned about adding gambling addiction to the state’s already woeful opioid crisis.

“I don’t know which way I would vote. I think a convention center, a music venue would only help our business. I think I would like to understand what the plan is a little better, certainly understand the ballot question better before I voted,” she says.

She does have a little time. Even if state voters were to approve the item on Nov. 7, the casino developers would still need approval from the municipal government of whichever host community they decided on.

This story was originally published Oct. 12, 2017 at 5:53 p.m. ET.