Scarborough Downs: We only have eyes for Biddeford

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SCARBOROUGH — Scarborough Downs has no plans to build a proposed racino anywhere other than Biddeford, even though new wording of a ballot question makes it clear the project can end up somewhere else.

And though they may not agree on much, both sides of the racino debate say they are happy with the revised wording of the statewide referendum.

“We’re happy that question has been resolved, because now we can get down to the job at hand,” said Crystal Canney, spokeswoman for Scarborough Downs and Ocean Properties, the other company behind the Biddeford project.

Originally, the wording for the November ballot asked simply whether voters wanted to allow slot-machine gambling at harness racing tracks, or racinos, in Biddeford and in Washington County.

But anti-casino group CasinosNO! and Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, lobbied Secretary of State Charles Summers to change the wording of the bill to reflect that passage would actually allow for the construction of a racino anywhere within 25 miles of Scarborough Downs, in any community that approved it.

On Aug. 25, Summers released final wording of the ballot question, which now asks:

“Do you want to allow a slot machine facility at a harness racing track in Biddeford or another community within 25 miles of Scarborough Downs, subject to local approval, and at a harness racing track in Washington County, with part of the profits from these facilities going to support specific state and local programs?”

“I think it was a big improvement,” said Dennis Bailey, spokesman for CasinosNO!. “The original language was misleading. All it said was ‘Do you want a slots facility at a racetrack in Biddeford.’ That’s not what the law says.”

The racino and hotel complex, to be called Biddeford Downs Racino, is proposed for city-owned land west of the Maine Turnpike off Andrews Road in Biddeford. The complex’s value has been estimated at $120 million.

It would be owned and operated by Scarborough Downs and Ocean Properties, which owns several hotels in the state, including resorts in Bar Harbor and Rockland.

Biddeford resident approved the project last November, with nearly 60 percent of voters supporting the racino. Scarborough voters rejected similar proposals in 2003 and 2008.

While the law may allow for the racino to be built within 25 miles of Scarborough Downs, the racetrack’s attorney, who helped craft the law, says the would-be racino operators have no intention to go anywhere but Biddeford.

Ed MacColl said the bulk of the proposed law’s language was crafted in early summer of 2010. And while the developers were already eyeing Biddeford, they were only in early talks with city officials and the proposal had yet to survive the crucial local vote there. Now that is has, MacColl said, there’s no way they want to go anywhere else.

“All the meaningful hurdles are already behind us in Biddeford,” he said. “We haven’t given any thought to any place other than Biddeford. They’ve been so welcoming and wonderful.”

Bailey said he doesn’t doubt that the developers would like to go to Biddeford.

“I’m not saying their intention isn’t to put the thing in Biddeford,” he said. “But voters should know that if things don’t go according to plan, it could be in their town.”

Canney, the spokeswoman for the developers, said if Biddeford Downs goes through, it will bring 500 jobs with an average salary and benefit package of $35,000 per year.

Scarborough Downs put 400 acres of land up for sale in last fall, asking between $50,000 and $75,000 per buildable acre. The property, near Maine Turnpike Exit 42 between Route 1, Haigis Parkway and Payne Road, has about 223 buildable acres. The remaining acreage is wetlands and other unbuildable land.

Sale of the property is not contingent on the race track’s potential move to Biddeford. If the racino is approved and the race track moves, the entire Scarborough property is expected to be sold, too.

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

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