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Environmental impact of casino uncertain
OXFORD — With green developments springing up like weeds, the highest-profile construction project in the county is going to be judged, in some part, by how environmentally friendly it is.
Members of Black Bear Entertainment (BBE), the group responsible for the planned casino in Oxford, say that environmentalism is often just good business practice.
"If you look at using conservation that makes sense and that is efficient, it makes good business sense," said investor Rob Lally. "Of course you're gonna use energy efficiency products, because it makes great business sense to do so."
Phase One of the project, which includes the casino, parking for more than 1,000 cars, and some support structures, will be lacking in eye-catching green initiatives, but Lally says that such items may be more feasible for Phase Two of the build-out, which would be likely to include a 100-room hotel.
"There are a lot of great ideas out there," said Lally. "It's impossible for us to do it Phase One, but not necessarily impossible for us to do it Phase Two, Phase Three or down the road. I think that's important as we discuss moving forward, some of the things that we want to do, versus some of the things that we need to do today."
When asked about green energy features such as solar panels, Lally said "I can tell you that if we had more time, if we had a little extra money, I'd say we'd do it Phase One."
But don't rule out the possibility of solar-powered slots in the future.
"My feeling is that that'll be a serious consideration in Phase Two," said Lally. "We think it makes sense. We love the idea of renewable energy. ... It didn't make sense for us to do it Phase One."
Lally says that, while he would like to make bolder environmental moves in the future, right now the group is using a "crawl, walk, run" approach that involves creating an actual smaller revenue stream before committing resources to attract a larger one.
Local business owner and environmental activist Scott Vlaun, who helped to spearhead a local organization opposed to the casino, says that the project has a long way to go before it can be considered green. He calls it "an environmental disaster." He says that there are many big impacts on the environment that are completely under the control of BBE.
"It's a question of if they're going to be using local materials that only have to be transported a few miles, or if they're importing steel studs from China, " said Vlaun, "and how they're going to heat and maintain it, and the commuting of the people that are going to run it."
Lally says that there is no quantifiable commitment to using a particular proportion of local materials, but that the desire to use local materials is there.
"It's too early to tell how much of the local material will be coming from Maine, but ... we are gonna use local businesses and local Maine people to build and operate this resort casino," said Lally. "... I think it's too early to say on actual building resources to say where they will come from."
Lally says that BBE is working to hire a consultant to help reduce utility usage.
Bob Berry, from Main-Land Development Consulting, project leader for the casino's construction, says that for right now, the focus has been on state requirements.
"On this project, I've been concentrating on meeting the Maine DEP's 25 different items that they review under their environmental jursidiction," said Berry. "I just want to mention that we are meeting or exceeding all of those."
Berry said that much of the focus from the DEP's end has been on stormwater control.
BBE's various investors, who come from different backgrounds and eras of business development, seem to be divided on how green their project should be.
On one end of the spectrum is Lally, whose environmental bona fides are on display at the Mt. Abram Ski Resort, which Lally co-owns with his partner, Matt Hancock.
On the other end of the spectrum is legendary Maine businessman Bob Bahre, who intimated during a press conference in November that he sees the DEP as more of an obstacle, than a partner in environmental stewardship.
"One big thing in this whole deal is going to be the DEP," said Bahre.
He spoke of the DEP's permitting process during a 2008 effort to lease land to Lowes for an Oxford location.
"They didn't approve it until the last day of their six months," said Bahre.
"We've sat down as an ownership group and started to talk about what our vision was for the project," said BBE investor Steve Barber. "It was: minimize carbon emissions, create a very green operation, and so that is in there, and we will be proceeding in that fashion."
BBE representatives say that, while some environmental plans are still on the distant horizon, they are eager to continue the conversation with members of the community.
BBE community representative Scott Smith says that the company has been working hard to build a strong relationship with the casino's immediate neighbors, many of whom raised initial concerns.
"From day one we've been interacting with the abutters ... I've been able to get ahold of over 90 percent of them," said Smith.
"Just last week we met with three folks that were concerned with some stormwater issues," said Smith. After hearing about the specific plans and details, the citizens walked away happy, he reports. "They were very satisfied."
In other cases, says Smith, he is the one who is taught something new, and this allows BBE to understand and respond to concerns.
"We met with a family down at Hogan Pond about some concerns they had about some streams that were flooding, and some culverts," he said. "Some of the folks that are very close, we've adjusted our buffer from 15 to 25 feet."
"This is not environmentally sound development as far as I'm concerned," said Vlaun. "This is an environmental disaster. There's nothing green."
Vlaun said that in order to be considered truly environmentally friendly, the casino would have to do something to offset the massive numbers of miles that will be traveled by vehicles coming to the casino.
"They're about to pave over one of our prime pieces of farmland," said Vlaun. "The soils there are of statewide significance, and we're going to pave over that with the parking lots and the building."
Mark Robinson, a spokesperson for BBE, says that any criticism of the casino's carbon footprint is a criticism of commerce in general.
"If it were not casinos, wouldn't they have the same objection?" asked Robinson"... If manufacturing came back to Oxford County, which it will not, wouldn't you have the same problem of car miles? I don't think that's an honest objection."
BBE investor Jim Boldebrook says that casinos are actually better for the environment than other industries.
"I don't think you could name me, or anybody could name me, another industry that we could put in this town with a smaller environemental negative impact footprint," said Boldebrook. "For instance, let's say Walmart wanted to build a distribution center here. You would have 75,000 semi-trailer trucks. We would have an unimaginable carbon footprint from trucks that get six miles a gallon tearing up our roads."
Vlaun and Lally do agree on one thing.
"If the rail service came," said Vlaun. "That would help a lot."
Vlaun is referring to a movement that's been gathering steam among local business communities, and which hopes to convince a major rail provider to reestablish passenger rail to the region.
"We've talked to the folks at the rails," said Lally. "... I think we become more successful as a community here in Western Maine if we have more mass transportation."
However, says Lally, bringing rail to Western Maine is a problem for the entire community, not the casino, to tackle.
"I think the towns need to get together and come up with a plan," he said. "The rail line is great, but I think its a longer term solution."
For the short-term, said Lally, the community should explore a shuttle service like the Mountain Explorer, which currently serves people at various points in Bethel, Newry, Greenwood, and surrounding communities.