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Existing Maine casinos mobilize to block new competitors

Brandon Scott spoke with Joyce Lorraine in Portland about a petition regarding a referendum for another casino in the southern part of the state.
Brandon Scott spoke with Joyce Lorraine in Portland about a petition regarding a referendum for another casino in the southern part of the state. Joel Page/Portland Press Herald/Portland Press Herald

AUGUSTA, Maine – For years, dreams of opening lucrative new casinos here have run into opposition from the state’s two existing casinos and the cadre of well-connected lobbyists bent on protecting them from competition.

Now, a campaign bankrolled by a Las Vegas multimillionaire is trying to build a third casino between Portland and New Hampshire. Keenly aware of the gambling industry’s political clout, organizers are seeking to bypass lawmakers and put the question directly to voters on the statewide ballot this fall.

True to form, the existing casinos, in Bangor and Oxford, are gearing up to keep the competition at bay.

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“The casinos are the biggest anticasino force in the state, by far,” said Dennis Bailey, a public relations specialist who has run campaigns against casinos. “They clobber the opposition because they’ve got the money to do it.”

In an odd-bedfellows alliance, Christian groups are joining Penn National, which operates the Bangor casino, and Churchill Downs, which runs the one in Oxford, in opposing new casinos. On a practical level, they are grateful for the industry’s deep pockets.

“They are willing to invest without restraint in the political process,” said Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend, I guess.”

The success Maine casinos have had fending off would-be rivals — at least so far — shows the scope of their influence on the state’s political process.

And while casinos in Massachusetts do not face the regular possibility of new competition, they may well employ similar tactics to advance their agenda, specialists say.

“The casino industry makes sure its interests are looked after in the political world,” said Jeffrey Berry, a Tufts University political science professor. “They have the money and are willing to spend it for the best lobbyists.”

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Already, casinos seeking a site in Massachusetts have retained some of the most sought-after lobbyists, including former governor Bill Weld, who represents Wynn Resorts, the developer of a planned $1.7 billion casino in Everett.

Richard McGowan, a Boston College professor who specializes in gambling issues, said it would be natural, for instance, for the casinos to lobby for the tight regulation of daily fantasy sports betting, which they see as a competitive threat.

“Casinos ask for and get breaks on all kinds of things,” he said.

In Maine, casino mogul Shawn Scott financed a campaign to collect more than 60,000 signatures in support of a new casino. The signatures were recently filed with the secretary of state’s office for verification.

If the ballot question is approved in November, Scott would be the only developer eligible to open a casino in southern Maine.

At the same time, Ocean Properties, a well-known national developer with roots in Maine, is pushing a bill to allow the company to bid on a state license for a resort casino in the same area.

Peter Connell, a lobbyist for Ocean Properties, said Maine “is missing the market” by failing to open a casino in the southern part of the state, where most of the state’s people live and the per capita income is highest. Such a casino would also be well-positioned to attract out-of-state gamblers, he said.

The competing proposals have casino lobbyists angling for position. On a recent snowy day in Maine, Mike Mahoney and Dan Walker lobbied lawmakers on behalf of the existing casinos in the marble hallways of the State House, minutes before the state Legislature went into session.

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State Representative Louie Luchini said he and other lawmakers are lobbied more aggressively on casinos than almost any other issue.

“That’s because there is so much money at stake,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Oxford Casino said more casinos will “cannibalize” the existing casinos by drawing away gamblers and prompting “significant job losses and millions in lost revenue for the state.”

A spokesman for the Bangor casino, Hollywood Slots, declined to comment. A representative for Scott could not be reached for comment.

Luchini, a Democrat from Ellsworth who chairs the committee that reviews casino bills, said the state needs to take a more comprehensive approach. He said he is not necessarily opposed to expanded gambling, citing an independent report from two years ago that concluded there is sufficient demand to support more casinos. But he said the state has regularly missed opportunities to better control the industry, a failure that has led to great uncertainty.

The state’s first casino, Hollywood Slots, opened in 2003. Scott bought an aging horse racing track, then won a statewide ballot question allowing slot machines there. To the annoyance of many residents, he then sold the rights to a national company for $50 million.

Encouraged by his success, others tried to follow suit, but ballot questions repeatedly failed. But in 2010, local entrepreneurs in Oxford, a small town in western Maine, leveraged the hard times of the recession to pull off a win at the polls. Like Scott, they quickly sold out to a national company.

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As predicted, Oxford’s opening cut Hollywood Slots’ revenue by more than 20 percent, and the owners quickly became allies to fend off newcomers. In 2011, the town of Biddeford, in the heart of Maine’s southern beach region, made an ambitious bid for a resort-styled casino, complete with a hotel, spa, and other amenities.

But in a statewide effort that Mahoney and Walker helped direct, the two allied casinos fought off that proposal, while bills filed at the State House for new casinos fell short.

Now, casinos are again seeking to bar the door behind them.

“They’re spending all kinds of money to protect their piece of the pie,” Conley said.

Darlene Fellis gestured after dealing a winning blackjack hand in Bangor.
Darlene Fellis gestured after dealing a winning blackjack hand in Bangor. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press/File 2012

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.