BANGOR — Eleven years ago, this old logging town on the Penobscot River opened a new frontier for casino gambling in northern New England.
Voters in Bangor — where a giant statue of Paul Bunyan watches over Main Street — in 2003 approved a ballot question to allow a slots parlor to operate at its 131-year-old harness track. Today, Hollywood Casino Hotel & Raceway, owned by Penn National Gaming Inc., is a mainstay, providing 400 jobs and millions of dollars in taxes and other revenues that enabled the city to open a $65 million civic center last fall.
At first, business leaders had a healthy dose of Yankee skepticism over a proposal to bring casino gambling to this blue-collar burg of about 33,000 people, the third-largest city in Maine.
“Those of us who work on economic development were kind of scratching our heads and saying, ‘Is this the right kind of development?’ ” said Andy Hamilton, chairman of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce. “ ‘Is this going to be good for the community?’ ”
It’s a question now being asked in Revere, Mass., where residents on Tuesday will vote on a proposal to allow a $1.3 billion resort casino at Suffolk Downs, New England’s last thoroughbred racetrack, which straddles the city’s border with East Boston.
Mohegan Sun, a Connecticut-based casino company, proposes to build two hotels, chic shops and restaurants, and a 24-hour casino overlooking the oval race track.
The referendum — the second time in three months that Revere will vote on a Suffolk Downs casino project — must pass if Mohegan Sun’s application for the one resort casino license available in Greater Boston is to advance before the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.
Just over two weeks before the initial Revere vote, Suffolk Downs asked Caesars Entertainment to withdraw from the licensing bid over concerns it would not pass a state-mandated background check. About 60 percent of Revere voters endorsed the casino on Nov. 5, but East Boston voters rejected having a large portion of the resort in their territory.
The new Suffolk Downs-Mohegan Sun plan that goes to a vote next week puts the entire casino operation in Revere, using about 42 acres of the racetrack’s 163-acre property.
Revere political and business leaders have been unwavering in their support, citing as much as $40 million in annual financial payments and tax revenues, along with new jobs and business opportunities.
Meanwhile, vocal opponents, including a coalition of clergy, vow to defeat the casino ballot question this time.
“We just don’t think a casino is right for Revere,” said Joseph Catricala, 29, a founder of Don’t Gamble On Revere, a grass-roots group. “Over the long term, it will just increase addiction, crime, traffic, things Revere just doesn’t need.”
The group has put up “No Casino” signs on front lawns, printed literature, and is knocking on doors in this city of nearly 54,000 people.
“We’re hitting the streets daily,” said Catricala, a lifelong Revere resident. “This referendum is our last chance to keep it out.”
Religious leaders plan to preach and pray against the referendum.
“We’re encouraging people in our congregations to go out and vote ‘no,’ ” said the Rev. Tim Bogertman, associate pastor of First Congregational Church and founder of Friends of Revere, a group of religious leaders whose rallying cry is: “Because we believe God has something better for Revere than a casino.”
Bogertman said, “Our biggest concern is over the long term. We’re concerned for the families that live here. The addiction, the crime rates that this will bring, how will that affect the community?”
“Casino gambling is predatory,” said the Rev. George Szal, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish for the last nine years. “It destroys families. It destroys communities.”
People should be skeptical of the promise of new revenues and jobs, he said.
“The devil never has a horrible face,” said Szal. “He’s always dressed as a gentleman.”
But if Bangor is any indication, the fears in Revere may be much ado about nothing. In the Maine city some 230 miles north of Revere, residents also worried that casino-related vices would endanger the quality of life.
“Crime, prostitution, drugs — that’s all we heard it would bring,” said Peter Geaghan, a second-generation owner of Geaghan’s Restaurant & Pub, next door to the casino. “But, to be honest, that hasn’t happened. At least not here in Bangor.”
Geaghan said he bet that the casino would be a boost from the get-go. Before it opened, he added 10 workers, boosting employment to 55 people. Then he decided to add a brewery, run by his nephew, Andy.
The restaurant/brewery now has 68 employees and serves nine styles of beer, including Bangor Brown Ale. “We felt comfortable investing because we saw a lot of investment and activity at this end of the city,” Geaghan said. “That started with the casino.”
City leaders, too, said the early concerns never materialized.
“There are always people who don’t support gambling for moral reasons,” said Tanya Emery, the city’s director of community and economic development. “That argument is prevalent wherever you go. I think, for us up here, people saw it as a positive opportunity.”
In 2012, Bangor’s crime rate was driven largely by reports of theft, according to data tracked by the Maine Department of Public Safety. In 2006, the year after Hollywood Slots opened in a temporary location while the hotel and casino complex was built, the city’s crime rate had increased only marginally, according to the data.
“We have not seen an increase in crime based on the existence of the casino,” said Bangor Police Chief Mark Hathaway during an interview in his office. “We don’t respond to any more calls there than we do at any other hotel or bar.”
To be sure, not everyone sees the casino as Lady Luck.
“I’ve seen people crying on the street because they’ve lost their month’s rent there,” said Janet Chapas, 59, of Hermon, Maine, who visits the casino about once every three months.
The casino offered only slot machines when it opened in a temporary location in November 2005. Three years later, the $132 million Hollywood Casino Hotel & Raceway opened on 8 acres formerly occupied by two outdated hotels and a few houses.
“The old buildings there before were very unsightly,” said Dale Wilkes, a manager at Realty of Maine, a real estate firm whose Main Street office is just steps from the casino. “It’s really brought a nice change.”
The 152-room casino hotel brought a touch of old Hollywood to Bangor. Black-and-white photos of Humphrey Bogart and other movie legends line its interior, along with posters for such iconic films as “Gone With The Wind.”
Some of the casino’s 900 slot machines are movi- themed, such as “The Wizard of Oz.’’ Others have more a risqué tone, such as “Elvira’s Secret.’’ A few have homespun Maine names like “Lucky Larry’s Lobstermania.’’
Harness racing is held at the city-owned track across the street during summer months. The city leases the track to Penn National for $104,000 per year.
In 2012, table games — including poker, craps, blackjack, and roulette — were added, making Bangor the host of the first full casino in Maine. Simulcasts of horse races around the country are displayed on giant screens.
Since adding table games, business at the casino has increased about 15 percent, said John Osborne, the general manager.
“We operate our company to the letter of the law,” said Osborne, a 32-year veteran of the casino industry.
“We are not required to have a responsible gaming program,’’ which offers help for people addicted to gambling, “but we do have one,'’ he said. “We believe in being responsible to the community.”
The casino’s hourly jobs, ranging from food and cocktail servers to slot-machine attendants and security staff, pay hourly wages starting at about $10, he said. Annual salaried positions, such as entry-level accountant, start in the low $30,000s, he said.
“We have a very good base, a terrific workforce, because of all the colleges in the area,” Osborne said.
Stefanie Peary, 42, earns $11.50 an hour as a cook at the casino’s Epic Buffet. She started out as a hostess four years ago.
“This gave me a whole new career path,” Peary said, as she stood chopping red-skinned Maine-grown potatoes, to be served roasted on a Friday evening buffet. “There aren’t a lot of opportunities around.”
The Bangor chamber last month gave a Paul Bunyan Award to the Hollywood Casino as its Business of the Year.
“The only reason we were so comfortable doing that is because it’s so well run,” said Hamilton, the chamber’s chairman.
The city receives 3 percent of slot revenues, 2 percent of table gaming revenues, and 1 percent of the revenue paid to the state, officials said.
Those payments have totaled $16.6 million, according to city data.
Bangor has used the income to pay the debt on the Cross Insurance Center, a gleaming new civic center that replaced an outdated city auditorium.
The facility, which opened in September, can host everything from touring Broadway shows to high school basketball tournaments and University of Maine men’s and women’s basketball games (the college’s campus is about 15 minutes away in Orono).
“We turned ourselves inside out for a decade, trying to figure out how we could replace our auditorium,” said Norm Heitmann, the city attorney, “and the revenue just wasn’t there until the casino came along.”