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Casino debate in Oxford Hills
OXFORD HILLS -- Casino supporters and opponents clashed in a debate last week, with each side employing fiery rhetoric to convince an audience of about 350 locals, as well as a larger tv and radio audience, that their stance was correct.
Each side may have inadvertently made an argument for their opposition.
Rob Lally, a member of casino investment group Black Bear Entertainment, backed off of claims that the casino would improve the unemployment rate, while casino opponent Jeff Rosenblatt said that he did not think that the casino would hurt the character of Western Maine.
Rosenblatt continually called the development project a "slot machine barn," while John Williams, the executive director of the Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce, said that the casino was the best way for the area to get out of what he referred to repeatedly as "an economic malaise."
Some members of the audience said that the debate contained far more words than ideas.
"I didn't get a whole lot of information," said one attendee. "Other than that the one side was in favor, and the other side was against."
Lally and Williams represented the "Ye"s on Question 1 side, while Rosenblatt and CasinosNo! Director Dennis Bailey represented the "No" on Question 1 position.
The debate was moderated by Susan Sharon of MPBN news, and featured questions from a panel of media journalists, including Jeff Wade, news director of WGAN News Radio, Brian Yocono, anchor for WCSH-TV, and Judy Meyer, managing editor of the Sun Journal.
When asked about a variety of cities which have both casinos and high unemployment rates, Lally said that a single casino could hardly be expected to impact the unemployment rate.
"When we look at the unemployment rates, I think it's very hard to say that one single business in any one city is going to create enough jobs to actually affect the total unemployment rate," said Lally.
This is a more reserved prediction than has been made by most of the Yes on 1 campaign, which has frequently and repeatedly cited high unemployment rates in Oxford County as a reason to approve the casino.
Rosenblatt was asked if a casino was really out of character for Western Maine, which also hosts a speedway and ski resorts.
"I don't buy into this, that it's necessarily going to change the character of Maine," said Rosenblatt "Whether it fits in or not I don't think is the big issue. The big issue is whether this is economic development or this is just cannibalizing the local businesses."
Separately, Rosenblatt said that he had no moral opposition to gambling.
"I don't have any moral opposition to gambling, none whatsoever," said Rosenblatt. "I don't pretend to be telling people how to spend money on their recreational activities. The issue here is whether there will be a net benefit or a net loss to the community."
The investors have consistently referred to the project as a "four season resort casino," and Lally disputed the characterization of a "slot machine barn."
"We've heard from the opposition about we're just going to build this 65,000-square-foot slot barn," said Lally. "Well, that's just not true. We want to build this in a very responsible manner and grow it as we grow. We're going to continue down a five-year plan to have a full build out, where we will spend $165M of private money to build this resort casino here in Oxford County."
Casino opponent Bailey, on the other hand, disputed William's assertion that the casino would boost the economy.
Asked why people should reject the opportunity for jobs and tax revenues, Bailey responded that the proposal should not be confused with an economic development plan.
"The premise of your question is that the "yes" side has presented an economic development proposal, and we reject that. It is not economic development. It is economic cannibalism."
Lally said just the opposite.
"We need to use a little common sense here. I'm hearing all the time that none of this is new, and all of this is cannibalizing," he said. "How is it possible that we put a $165 million development in Oxford that doesn't create any new jobs, that doesn't create good jobs, that doesn't attract good jobs for the people here in Maine. It absolutely makes no sense to me that this is not going to be an economic stimulus for this area, and for all of Maine.
The Gabe Report
Much of the discussion centered around "the Gabe Report," an economic impact study conducted by University of Maine professor Todd Gabe. The study, which was commissioned by the casino's investors, has been the basis of revenue and job projections.
"The Gabe report doesn't say anything like what they claim it says," said Rosenblatt. "It doesn't say that there will be a net gain of thousands of jobs, or even one job. Mr. Gabe can't even say whether more jobs might be lost than created."
"For us to just sit here and talk about professor Gabe, a full professor from the University of Maine, and discount his numbers all night long I think is just ridiculous," said Lally at one point.
Rosenblatt and Williams, representing the local angle of the debate, predictably had dramatically different interpretations of the proposed project.
"I think it's an issue that divides people, and that divides the state," said Bailey.
Rosenblatt repeatedly claimed that the casino's gain would be the community's loss.
"The cost is the cannibalization of the local economy by the casino operators that take the money from the businesses that would otherwise benefit," said Rosenblatt. "It's a zero sum game. It's not an unlimited amount of money to be spent on entertainment by the patrons of the casino. Every dollar they spend in the casino is a dollar they don't spend in a local business."
Williams saw things differently.
"My feeling is that what this casino is going to do is generate more payrolll, create more opportunities for jobs, and bring an additional revenue stream into the area," said Williams. "It's not going to change Western Maine at all. I believe it's going to enhance it."
Asked if they had even been to casinos themselves, Rosenblatt and Williams both admitted to losing very small amounts of money. The impression they had, however, was very different.
"I went down to Foxwoods just to see what was going on down there," said Rosenblatt. "I never saw a more depressing sight in my life. I watched the people feeding their money into the slot machines."
Williams recounted a series of conferences he had attended in Las Vegas over a five-year period.
"I have to disagree with Jeff a little bit by saying that I didn't see a ton of depressed people sitting around those slot machines or sitting around those gaming tables," said Williams. "I saw a lot of people having a good time and enjoyment.... I didn't see people standing on the corner with their head lowered, crying that they just lost thousands of dollars to the gaming tables or the slot machines."
"Much of the problems with the casino, and I think we've seen it here in the discussion tonight, are invisible,” responded Bailey. “Mr. Williams says 'I went to Las Vegas and it looked great, everyone was having a good time'. Las Vegas has the highest suicide rate in the country. It has the highest home foreclosure rate in the country. He didn't see that."
At one point, casino supporters were asked to identify a negative, and opponents were asked for a positive about the project.
“Will some people get a job at this casino?” asked Bailey. “You bet. No question about it.” He went on to say that the overall economic and social impact would be negative.
"Are there going to be negative circumstances surrounding any new venture coming into an area?” asked Williams. “Absolutely. There's no question that there probably will be.” He went on to cite his confidence in the Maine businesspeople who make up BBE. “...So my feeling is we can overcome the negative impacts, any negative impacts, that initially we might see from this resort."
Lally said that the casino traffic would not be as problematic as it might otherwise be, because it will be a regular flow that is not tied to peak times of day or the week. As a result, said Lally, the impact would be more easily managed. He added that any direct costs related to traffic management would be borne by BBE.
Bailey noted that casino measures often fail in statewide referendums, even if they pass in the county in which they are proposed.
"There's almost like a reverse NIMBY," he said. "It's like 'only in my backyard do I want a casino,' which is kind of crazy."
Oxford resident Robert Ragan, who owns the lingerie store "Sexy Secrets" on Route 26, said that he came to support the casino, which he believes will help to boost his store's sales.
"I think it will," he said. "If they're putting enough people to work, people will have more money. My business relies on people gifting to each other. They need to have a paycheck in order to do that."