False promise

Members of the Legislature’s Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs are considering a recently released study asserting that Maine can sustain one, and perhaps two, new casinos. That finding can’t be regarded as much of a surprise when one considers its source, WhiteSand Gaming, an international consulting firm that works hand in glove with the gambling industry.

WhiteSand Gaming, which also provides casino and resort management services, was hired last spring after members of a task force assigned to look at expanding casino gambling in Maine could not agree on findings or recommendations. The consultant firm apparently considered as a foregone conclusion the notion that Maine already is committed to gambling expansion. Indeed, state Sen. Garrett Mason of Lisbon, lead Republican on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, all but confirmed that view recently in lauding WhiteSand’s work. “This study is unbiased and focused on what’s best for Maine and what’s best for the state going forward with gambling,” Mr. Mason told the Bangor Daily News.

The WhiteSand analysis determined that there is “additional capacity for casino gaming in Maine as part of an integrated dining and entertainment offering.” The firm envisions a full-fledged casino complex on a scale significantly larger than Bangor’s Hollywood Casino, located in southern Maine near the beaches. With a license fee of $5 million and a minimum capital investment requirement of $250 million for the new facility, and a standardized taxing and license renewal scheme for all casinos, WhiteSand projects that the state’s share of revenue would jump from $53.2 million in 2013 to $67 million when the new casino goes on line. That revenue might be bumped still higher if a fourth casino, on a smaller scale, were to be licensed in Aroostook County or Washington County.

We suspect that, for many legislators, such projections will be viewed through rose-colored glasses. More state revenue means more money available for favorite programs at a time when budget constraints take center stage at every legislative session. In such circumstances, gambling proponents may be more than ready to discount concerns over the damaging effect more casinos will have on existing Maine businesses. The WhiteSand study suggests that a new southern Maine casino would have a 20 percent “cannibalization” effect on the nearby Oxford Casino, which doesn’t remotely resemble the “four-season resort” plan that was the basis for its narrow approval by Maine voters in 2010. A competing casino could be the death knell for Oxford, which already offers only “the minimum in terms of facilities required for a gaming operation,” according to WhiteSand.

Study after study has shown that all but the mega-casinos draw most of their patrons from no further than 50 to 75 miles away. The WhiteSand study suggests that further casino development in New Hampshire or Massachusetts likely would have little impact on Maine, but it’s doubtful that would-be gamblers in those states would forego their own facilities to make a trek north.

Casinos, whether in Bangor or Oxford or at a new location, are, and will continued to be, supported largely by money from the pockets of Mainers that otherwise would be spent with the myriad stores, restaurants and other small businesses that provide the backbone of the state’s economy. Casino revenue will not generate much new money. Most of the gaming revenue flows through the casinos to a handful of major investors, likely from gaming conglomerates, with the state taking its cut.

The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee would do well to cast a skeptical eye on the false promise contained in the WhiteSand report. Maine will be far better off if the Legislature and the next governor focus on economic development that doesn’t rely on a get-rich-quick vision that entices folks to risk money they can’t afford.