OXFORD, Maine — Route 26 through Oxford, known to Massachusetts skiers as the way to Sunday River, is not likely to be confused with the Las Vegas Strip.
In one of the more rural counties in New England, the road passes a chaotic mix of chain stores and local entrepreneurship: a stock car racetrack; a guy selling tires and rims, yard-sale style, at the side of the road; and a porn store named after the First Amendment.
But this stretch of Western Maine is the unlikely new front line in the national expansion of casino gambling.
The Oxford Casino, built on former farmland, opened on Route 26 early this month, two years after voters narrowly approved it in a statewide referendum. It is Maine’s second gambling parlor, joining Hollywood Casino in Bangor, and the sixth in New England, after the two tribal resorts in Connecticut and the two slot parlors in Rhode Island.
Though not expected to compete financially with Massachusetts’ plans for as many as three gambling resorts and a slot arcade, Oxford could have strong influence on the regional gambling market — by increasing the likelihood that New Hampshire will open its borders to casinos and leave Vermont as the only northeast state not penetrated by the industry, said Clyde Barrow, a casino specialist at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.
‘The thing that’s made it thrilling is we have over 400 people hired.’
‘Jobs were the big thing that people talked about’ in the campaign. ‘We’re by far the poorest state in the northeast. People are very sensitive to that.’
New Hampshire lawmakers, said Barrow, “have been completely focused on what Massachusetts has been doing and have seemed oblivious to Oxford,” as New Hampshire has debated casino bills. He estimates that New Hampshire residents spend $60 million per year at the Connecticut casinos. With Oxford less than an hour from the border, “You’re going to see the outflow of money accelerate, and New Hampshire is going to have a two-front war. I think it will put increased pressure on the next New Hampshire governor to sign an expanded gaming bill of some kind.”
The Oxford Casino is a drive-in business with no hotel in its opening phase. It was developed by a group of local businesspeople betting that day trippers from Maine and New Hampshire would be willing to visit the outskirts of nowhere to play slots, cards, and dice.
Oxford County may seem an unlikely site for a casino. It is the fifth-poorest among 16 counties in Maine, with median household income of $39,700, below the state average of $46,900, according to the US Census Bureau. Opponents fought to keep the casino from being built, but unemployment in Oxford County — about 10.5 percent at the time — factored heavily in the 2010 referendum, showing the electoral power of the casino jobs message in struggling areas.
Though the proposal was approved statewide by less than 1 percentage point — 50.4 percent in favor to 49.6 percent opposed — the vote in Oxford County ran strongly procasino: 62 percent to 38 percent.
“Jobs were the big thing that people talked about” in the campaign, said Jim Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine-Farmington. “We’re by far the poorest state in the northeast. People are very sensitive to that.”
For casino opponents, Oxford was a rare misstep.
“We’ve been opposing casinos in Maine since 2003 and we’ve defeated them,” said Dennis Bailey, director of the citizens group CasinosNO!, who ruefully added, “This one got away.”
Melcher said repeated efforts over the past decade to win approval for casinos, undertaken in Maine through voter initiative, took a toll on the opponents. “It passed last time without as much effort from the anticasino people,” he said. “I think there’s a real fatigue here about the issue.”
It is a small casino, about the size of a supermarket. The initial investment is about $52 million, according to Oxford Casino, slightly more than one-tenth of the minimum capital investment Massachusetts will require in its gambling resorts. Oxford opened with about 530 slot machines and a dozen table games, though an expansion underway is expected to increase the gambling floor by about 50 percent, said Scott Smith, a spokesman for the development.
“The thing that’s made it thrilling is we have over 400 people hired,” said Smith. “I’m a Bethel [Maine] boy raised in Oxford County, and it’s really gratifying to see all day long a hiring manager meeting people coming through the door with: ‘Welcome to the Oxford Casino team.’ ”
Opponents doubt the jobs will make up for the paychecks and savings they say the casino will take from residents who patronize it.
“As far as I can see, their strategy is to drain money from the poor and the elderly in the area [who can’t afford to lose any money], of which there are plenty,” said opponent Scott Vlaun, who fought the project.
Vlaun also charged that the developers sold Mainers a phony, pumped-up image of the project during the campaign, which developers had pitched as a “four-season resort” with a hotel and amenities to better compete in the expanding New England market.
“What they put up there,” said Vlaun, “is a slot parlor.”
Smith, in response, said the project is being phased in.
“We’re committed to the larger vision,” he said. “It was always discussed in terms of one thing at a time. Keep an eye on us — we’re delivering. In all fairness we’ve had to negotiate and navigate the market. This is a business.”
Mainers seem to think two casinos is enough of the business in their state, at least for the moment — voters rejected two more casino ballot questions last year.
“I don’t see any appetite from the public for any expansion of casino gambling now,” said Melcher. “I think it’s going to be a long time before we see another casino vote in Maine.” In the meantime, he said, some lawmakers have called for a more formal process for establishing where casinos can be built, similar to Massachusetts’ highly structured casino legislation that divides the state into zones and restricts gambling resort development to no more than one per zone.
“So far, all of this has been initiative driven” in Maine, said Melcher. “You’ve had a lot of votes coming up almost randomly from this place, that place. And there seems to be a sense among a lot of people in the Legislature that this is a haphazard way to do it.”