News Analysis: Future uncertain for Scarborough Downs

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SCARBOROUGH — After losing what it called a “crucial” statewide bid to move to Biddeford and add slot machine gambling, uncertainty again envelopes Scarborough Downs.

The track recently applied for 110 race dates for the 2012 season, which will open on March 31.

But no one is sure what comes after that.

“If Scarborough Downs is not given a chance to compete, it’s not going to work in the long run,” said Ed McColl, who represents Scarborough Downs’ owner, Sharon Terry.

Last week, Scarborough Downs was on the losing side of Question 2, which would have allowed the company to partner with Ocean Properties to build a harness racing track and racino in Biddeford.

Ahead of the election, prospects for increasing business looked grim for Scarborough Downs, which hoped the racino would attract more customers to harness racing.

According to the Maine Harness Racing Commission, live bets in Maine dropped 43 percent from 2003 to 2010, from $7.8 million to $4.4 million. At the same time, money wagered at off-track betting operations dropped 50 percent, from $38.8 million to $16.7 million.

McColl said it’s a matter of competition. He said that other, cheaper forms of gambling – slot machines and lotteries – have eaten away at harness racing revenue.

He also said harness tracks that offer both races and slot machines have an unfair advantage.

“It’s just sort of common sense,” he said. “If harness racing in other states is associated with slots and you’re not, you can’t compete with that.”

The racino plan has eluded the Downs for years. Scarborough residents voted against the plan in 2003 and 2008. This year, Biddeford residents had OK’d the plan, but voters statewide said no.

In Maine, only one racino has been approved at the local and state levels, Hollywood Slots in Bangor. Under state law, about 21 percent of that racino’s slot-machine income goes back into the harness racing industry.

But even with Hollywood Slots funneling millions into Scarborough Downs each year, times are tough at Scarborough Downs.

“Mrs. Terry is watching her pennies and doing what she can to maximize income and make sure she can pay her bills,” McColl said. “But it’s very tight. She’s cut everywhere she can.”

Henry Jackson, executive director of the Maine Harness Racing Commission, said denying Scarborough Downs a racino would be bad for harness racing throughout the state. Some money from Biddeford slot machines would have gone into the harness racing industry, the same as it does from Hollywood Slots.

“If Scarborough had been successful, there would have meant additional funds available for harness racing generally,” he said. “How much of a setback it’s going to be, I just can’t measure that.”

McColl said Terry would continue looking for creative ways to make money to keep Scarborough Downs afloat. That could include hosting more concerts, like last summer’s Brad Paisley show. It could also mean once again putting the 400 acres of land surrounding the racetrack up for sale.

The land went on the market last year through real estate broker CBRE/The Boulos Co., but the listing expired this summer. It was divided into three parcels, ranging in price from $50,000 to $75,000 per buildable acre. There were about 220 buildable acres on the site. McColl said Terry decided not to renew the listing until after the election, but may consider posting it again.

In the meantime, operations continue at the Downs ahead of a Nov. 17 decision on the track’s application for race dates. And McColl said there’s no question they’ll continue pushing for a racino, but that it may not be in the next election cycle.

“There’s no argument against it other than confusion or fear,” McColl said. “We had to overcome that, and we didn’t.”

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.