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Scarborough Downs pins gaming hopes on market study

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Scarborough Downs pins gaming hopes on market study

SCARBOROUGH — Although a bill that would have allowed slot machines at Scarborough Downs officially failed in the state Senate on March 27, supporters remain hopeful about the next legislative session.

On Tuesday in Augusta, the Veteran and Legal Affairs Committee passed a measure that would create a panel to study the market in Maine and the feasibility of building more casinos. The study must be done by September.

The original bill, LD 1111, would have sent the town to its third referendum on operating slot machines at Scarborough Downs. The bill passed the House, but faltered in the Senate before it was officially given no further action this session.

Spokesman Mike Sweeney said the Downs was encouraged by the passing of the casino study and believes more state senators would have voted in favor of LD 1111 had the study been approved sooner.

“Members in the Legislature have said each year that they can’t move forward with more gaming because we don’t know what capacity is,” Sweeney said. “This is really the first time that the Legislature has taken the initiative and done what I believe is the right thing. They’ll hopefully find capacity for gaming, particularly in southern Maine, and multiply the tourism market down here.”

Sweeney and supporters of Scarborough Downs have said gaming is crucial to the survival of the Downs. This time around, their pleas were even more urgent, as Sweeney attributed a 28 percent loss of revenue in the past year to new casinos in Oxford and Bangor. A new harness racing casino also will open soon in Massachusetts.

Ed MacColl, lawyer for Scarborough Downs owner Sharon Terry, said he expects to fight again for the Downs next January, and continues to be concerned about the track’s survival.

“I know Sharon remains 100 percent convinced that, in the long run, a small-market harness track has no chance of surviving competition with casinos if it’s not allowed to offer gaming,” MacColl said. “She’s doing everything she can do survive in the interim until the issue gets resolved in a fair way.”

John Nason, a horsemen from New Hampshire, has raced at the Downs for 40 years. He said he worries that, without a casino at the track, horsemen and the industries they support will either die out or move to other states, like Pennsylvania and New York, that have successful race casinos.

“Most of us guys, that’s all we know, is the industry; if it’s not here, you’ve got to go where it is,” Nason said. “The younger generation will definitely go. But for guys my age, 50 and older, it’s pretty hard to start over.”

Though he is cautiously optimistic about the study and the future of harness racing in Maine, Nason said he finds it surprising that the Legislature and town do not overwhelmingly support a casino at the Downs.

Nason, MacColl and Sweeney all suggested the town budget’s proposed 7 percent tax increase could be smaller if the town could count on additional tax revenue from a racino.

“I hope they change their minds,“ Nason said. “(Terry has) hung on tough for us these past few years, and it’s pretty disappointing when you say two companies can have this in the state, but we can’t have it. It is a difficult fight.”

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or scarignan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.