Speculation returns about casino-related sale of Scarborough Downs

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SCARBOROUGH — A group hoping to build a casino in southern Maine may be interested in purchasing Scarborough Downs racetrack.

Linwood Higgins, lobbyist for the Maine Harness Horseman’s Association, Tuesday said Las Vegas developer Shawn Scott is “trying to obtain an ownership interest in Scarborough Downs” as part of his plans to expand the state’s gaming options.

Ed MacColl, spokesman for Scarborough Downs, did not confirm Scott’s group has an interest in the 65-year-old harness racing track, but did say “the Downs is interested in working with any group dedicated to a true racino – a gaming facility immediately adjacent to the commercial track.”

MacColl and Scarborough Downs owner Sharon Terry have long argued that a gaming facility attached to the racetrack is absolutely vital to its survival, as well as the survival of harness racing in Maine.

During the past dozen years, the Downs has repeatedly attempted to get approval to add slot machine gambling. In 2010, it also sought approval, in a statewide referendum, to build a $125 million resort and casino in Biddeford in partnership with Ocean Properties. While voters in Biddeford approved the project, it failed statewide.

In addition to the local and statewide referendums, Scarborough Downs also has consistently tried but failed to get bills allowing gaming passed by the Maine Legislature.

Higgins said it’s his understanding that while Scott is interested in the possibility of “putting a racetrack and casino (together) in Scarborough,” he is also working to gather enough signatures to put a casino, without a racetrack, on the state ballot, possibly in November.

That petition, entitled “An Act To Allow Slot Machines or a Casino in York County,” was initially issued on Dec. 8, 2016, and lapses on June 8, 2017, according to the Maine secretary of state’s office.

Scott’s group needs signatures from more than 61,000 registered voters, the secretary of state’s office said. In order to be on the November ballot, the signatures would have to be turned in by Feb. 1.

According to published reports, Scott is a controversial figure in the gaming industry. He was the former owner of the Bangor Historic Racetrack, which is now known as the Hollywood Slots Hotel and Raceway.

He sold that property, which includes slots and table games, to Penn National, and appears to have no interest in any gaming ventures in Maine.

Higgins, who said he met in October with Scott’s representatives, including a couple of potential investors, said he understands the group pushing for a new casino also has a potential interest in purchasing property in Sanford.

However, he said, the Maine Harness Horseman’s Association would “absolutely prefer for any new casino to have a racetrack attached. We believe there would be a certain amount of crossover (interest) that would benefit both (facilities).”

For the association, Higgins said, it “doesn’t matter much where the racino is located. We’ll be pleased to race wherever.”

But, he added, the association is actually pinning its hopes on a bill, LD 1280, that the Legislature is slated to debate this session, which he said “would be more beneficial for everyone involved.”

The bill would require a competitive bid process for any new gaming facility, as well as approval for such a development on the county level. And, it would require that a commission be set up to choose among the bids from interested developers.

Higgins said under the bill now before the Legislature, there is “no mandate for a racetrack,” but, he said, extra points would be allotted to any bid that included such a feature. In addition, the bill would require any casino developer to commit to an investment of at least $225 million.

He said the harness horsemen’s group is now trying to rally support for LD 1280 and said it’s much better for public policy to be decided by elected officials, rather than by private interests that come in and spend millions of dollars on a referendum campaign.

Lobbyist Cheryl Timberlake of Capitol Insights, hired by Scott’s group to assist in getting its proposed casino referendum on the statewide ballot, could not be reached for comment.

Under that bill, which is now being circulated, “the operation of the slot machines or casino must be approved by the voters or the municipal officers of the municipality in which the (facility) will be located.”

In addition, it would allow any new casino to operate within 100 miles of either of the other two gaming facilities in Maine, Hollywood Slots and the Oxford Casino, which is not allowed under state law.

The petition would also raise the number of allowed slot machines in the state from 3,000 to 4,500 and would require the slot machine or casino operator to pay a $5 million licensing fee.

In addition, if voters approve the “Act To Allow Slot Machines or a Casino in York County,” 39 percent of the net profit would be distributed among various interests, including education, harness racing purses, veterans programs and agricultural fairs, among others.

While the petition circulating around the state does not specifically include a harness racing track, MacColl said this week that “any other arrangement, including an arrangement for a remote casino that supplements (racing) purses, will further erode Maine harness racing and lead to the demise of the sport and the many family farms associated with it.”

As for the future of Scarborough Downs, he said, “Harness racing has always depended on gaming to survive. In the modern world of Internet wagering, racinos in other states and casinos here in Maine, the Downs and Maine harness racing need a fully integrated gaming facility to attract the wagering public (to successfully) compete.”

MacColl also said Scarborough Downs’ support for LD 1280, is “mixed.” The legislation, he said, “could allow for gaming at the track, which is vital to save the industry, (but), it could (also) allow for gaming not associated with harness racing, which would ruin not only the Downs, but all of Maine’s harness racing (industry).”

The 65-year-old Scarborough Downs harness race track is facing an uncertain future with a new casino proposal.