UPDATE: State Senate fails to OK slot machines at Scarborough Downs

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SCARBOROUGH — The state Senate Wednesday indefinitely postponed action on a bill that would allow casino gambling at Scarborough Downs.

The 20-14 vote surprised local advocates on both sides of the debate, who were preparing for the possibility of another local racino referendum.

The bill, LD 1111, which would allow slot machines at harness racing facilities like Scarborough Downs, passed the House of Representatives 86-50 last week. If it had been approved in the Senate, it would have allowed the question to bypass a statewide vote and likely head straight to a local referendum.

It would have put slot machines on the town ballot for the third time in the past 11 years. Both previous times, in 2003 and in 2008, the town voted not to allow racino-type development.

Now, the bill will go back to the House, where it can be amended, tabled or sent back to the Senate. A date for the bill to be taken up again in the House has not been set. 

The Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association expressed disappointment, but not loss of hope, in a post on its Facebook page following the Senate action. 

“(We) know this vote was extremely disappointing, but we knew the vote in the Senate would be difficult,” the post said. “There seems to be a strong move to work on a comprehensive approach.”

Sharon Terry, owner of Scarborough Downs, was very optimistic before Wednesday’s postponement, her lawyer, Ed MacColl, said before the Senate convened. He said the racetrack’s situation is grave, and regardless of the bill’s fate and the votes at the state or local levels, the Downs is in for a change.

“(Terry) needs to get this bill passed for harness racing and the Downs to survive,” MacColl said. “Scarborough Downs is the last small harness race track in the U.S. that competes with casinos that don’t have gaming, but it won’t be for long.”

Supporters of adding a casino to Scarborough Downs continue to believe the timing could finally be right, noting a general lack of problems in Oxford and Bangor after they added casinos.

“The town mood is different this time around,” Downs marketing director Susan Higgins said earlier this week. “You’re always going to have people who are against gaming, but people are starting to see that people who game are not criminals.”

Longtime local opponents of casinos are cautiously optimistic about the postponement. Though they had been closely watching Augusta this week, no opposition groups from previous referendums had formally mobilized yet.

But longtime casino opponent Fred Kilfoil, a former Scarborough resident and owner of the former Millbrook Motel on Route 1 (now America’s Best), on Tuesday said his peers are still “losing sleep.” 

Kilfoil and his former group, No Slots for ME, opposed bringing casinos to Scarborough for several reasons, most notably their opinion that the slots prey on senior citizens, and that racinos fall under the category of “bad economic development.”

“When I ran a motel for 28 years, I never asked for or expected help from the state,” Kilfoil said. “We can’t say this about this form of development.”

“How many times do they get to bring this up? It’s unfair,” he added.

Suzanne Foley-Ferguson, a Scarborough resident and longtime member of No Slots for ME, has been lobbying in Augusta against the bill. She and Kilfoil agreed that, regardless of any action at the state level, the fight is not over.

“We fully expect this to continue,” Foley-Ferguson said Wednesday before the Senate considered the bill. “If it fails in the Senate, they’ll just go back for a statewide vote or a referendum, I really believe they will. So what we really need to do is start forming again, basically, because we don’t think it’s over.” 

Alternatively, if LD 1111 had passed the Senate, there was also the possibility Terry would try to move her business to Biddeford, where voters approved such a move in 2010.

Supporters of the Downs say they will continue to watch Augusta and push for the legislation.

Otherwise, MacColl said, “It’s back to the drawing board.”

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

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that Mr. Kilfoil’s name is Fred, not Rob.