February 13, 2003
The Bangor City Council voted unanimously at its Jan. 27 meeting to grant tentative developer status to Capital Seven, the company that wants to rebuild Bangor Raceway and Bass Park. The vote means Capital Seven will have exclusive rights to negotiate with the city through May 1.
Capital Seven owner Shawn Scott bought Bangor Historic Raceway Inc., the company that operates harness racing at Bass Park, last fall for an undisclosed amount believed to be for at least $100,000. Scott has proposed enlarging the Bangor Raceway oval from a half mile to 5/8 of a mile and building an enclosed grandstand for patrons. He also wants to build a new clubhouse and paddock area, a 250-room hotel with slot machines, a restaurant and a movie theater at Bass Park.
Slot machines are not legal in Maine, but proponents of making them legal have submitted to the state signatures from Maine voters to put the issue on the November statewide ballot. If Maine voters approve slot machines for use at Bass Park and Scarborough Downs, the state's other full-time harness racing track, voters in Bangor and Scarborough would then have to approve the machines' use in their communities.
Officials in the harness racing industry say slot machines would generate revenue to increase purses, attracting better horses and invigorating the dying industry. As a general rule in states that allow slot machines to subsidize racetracks, 15 percent of the machines' take must go toward purses. However, the petition to legalize slot machines at Maine's racetracks calls for only 9 percent of slot revenues to go toward purses, with an additional 3 percent earmarked for the state's agricultural fairs.
Harness racing is a 153-year tradition in Bangor and has been a staple at Bass Park since the park opened in 1883.
Representatives for Scott, whose livelihood is buying, operating and selling casinos and racetracks, say Capital Seven's proposed development for Bass Park is not dependent on whether slot machines are made legal, although a vote against the machines would likely scratch plans for the hotel.
The 35-year-old Scott has drawn scrutiny in other states in which he has operated casinos and racetracks. In 1997, Nevada gaming officials forced him to give up his gaming license because of questions about financial statements for Cheyenne Hotel and Casino. Scott eventually sold the complex. In November 2001, Scott bought Vacation Village, a small, bankrupt Las Vegas 315-room hotel and casino, at auction for $17.8 million, according to e-vegas.net. A dispute with the former owners of the casino, whom Scott had wanted to continue managing the casino, caused Scott to sell.
A month earlier, Scott had bought the Flamingo Reno for $5 million. He then sold it for $6.75 million.
In 1999, Scott achieved his most notable success when he bought Delta Downs in Vinton, La., for $10 million and sold the racetrack for about $130 million after winning a battle to legalize slot machines at the track. Scott has said he sold Delta to Boyd Gaming because of fierce competition with larger tracks.
"In fact, I got depressed after selling Delta Downs," he told racing officials in New Mexico.
New Mexico Racing Commission officials were not impressed with Scott's deals when Scott sought to build a track in Hobbs. They rejected his application. Scott has appealed. The commissioner said he did not believe Scott would be committed to the track and believed Scott wanted to sell it for a quick profit. Commissioners were also concerned with Scott's ability to pay large purses when he owned Delta Downs because of the high-interest loans he has taken out to finance his projects, the Hobbs News Sun reported last year.
Politics also appears to have a role in efforts to stop Scott's attempt to build a track in New Mexico. The owner of a track near where Scott wants to build has said the region cannot support two tracks. The owner rebuffed an offer by Scott to buy his track. Scott said he would have operated both tracks to show it could be done.
Last year, Scott bought Vernon Downs in New York state after loaning the beleaguered track $9 million for improvements. The track had a history of licensing and financial problems. The New York Racing and Wagering Board granted Scott a temporary license to run the track but rejected his application in December for a permanent license while questioning Scott's commitment to turning the track's operations around.
"In many cases, specific items essential to making key determinations (about licenses) were omitted," the Dec. 24 issue of the Utica, N.Y., Observer-Dispatch quoted a racing commission report as saying. "In some cases, verbal assurances that information was forthcoming were followed with interminable delays and non-responsiveness."
A judge granted Scott a temporary restraining order against the board's decision, though, keeping the track open through February. The track's racing season doesn't begin until late April or early May, the Observer-Dispatch reported.
Although Scott sold Louisiana's Delta Downs, he has not abandoned the state. He has proposed building a track with slot machines near Johnson Bayou, 124 miles from Houston -- 20 miles closer than Delta Downs. Gambling is not legal in Texas. However, Louisiana racing officials have been cool to approving any more tracks because of concerns the quality of horses has become depleted. Delta Downs has had to reduce the number of live races it offers. The state has four tracks.
Despite the close scrutiny of Scott's deals, he has not been accused of breaking any laws. He is being sued by the former owners of Delta Downs, who say Scott owes them a bonus. Scott had agreed to pay the bonus if the track's facilities were in "good condition and met health and safety regulations," The Associated Press reported last year. Scott says the owners failed to hold their end of the deal.
Back in Maine, the Legislature has the option of approving the bill connected to the petition drive to legalize slot machines in the state, but the chance is extremely slim. Gov. John Baldacci, who's from Bangor, has said repeatedly that he does not favor legalizing casinos in the state. Opponents of slot machines fear it wouldn't be long before full-fledged casinos are allowed if slot machines are legalized for racetracks. The only difference between a casino and a slot machine parlor is a casino has table and card games.
Still, allowing private entrpreneurs into gambling beyond harness racing and weekend grange hall beano is tempting for Mainers. Northern Maine is an economic wasteland, especially with the recent closing of Great Northern Paper's East Millinocket and Millinocket mills. The state's American Indian tribes see gambling as a way to prosperity. Capital Seven says a revamped Bass Park could create at least 300 jobs.
If Mainers and Bangor residents approve slot machines at racetracks, there is still the question of whether Bangor should take on the potential burden of a 250-room hotel that would benefit a private enterprise. When Joseph Bass bequeathed the park that bears his name to the city, he made it clear that he wanted the park to belong to, and be enjoyed by, the people of Bangor. Another sticking point is what would happen to the Bangor State Fair which has called Bass Park home since the park opened. According to early reports, Capital Seven offered the city $1 million to help find a new site for the fair. However, now it appears that Capital Seven would agree to keep the fair, but on the expanded racetrack's infield.
Exchange Street lot tops list of sites for new sports arena
A new Bangor Auditorium and Civic Center should be built downtown, city councilors said at their Jan. 27 meeting. The Council is also looking to hire a company to manage the current facilities and their replacements.
One downtown parcel the Council is interested is at the corner of Exchange and Washington streets, next to the Fleet Building and across the Kenduskeag Stream from the Pickering Square parking garage. Preliminary plans for a new auditorium and civic center call for a 220,000-square foot, 7,500-seat arena with three levels and an adjoining civic center.
Putting the new auditorium and civic center downtown would help the city reinvigorate the downtown business district, councilors Gerry Palmer and Michael Crowley have said. In the last two years, the downtown area has seen the openings of the Maine Discovery Museum, a second museum by the Bangor Museum & Center for History, and the relocation of the University of Maine Museum of Art.
Parking would not be much of a problem, Palmer said, because there are about 4,500 parking spaces downtown and most events that would be held at the new arena and civic center would be held on weekends or after business hours on weekdays.
However, building the new arena and civic center at the corner of Exchange and Washington streets would require eliminating the parking lot on the site.
Last year the city added a sixth level to the Pickering Square garage because of increased demand for parking. The garage now has about 600 spaces.
However, despite spending $100,000 for a feasibility study and preliminary drawings, the city still has no money to build a new arena, which would replace the current Bangor Auditorium and Civic Center at Bass Park, about a mile from downtown. The current Auditorium, which seats 6,000 for basketball, opened in 1955. The Civic Center opened in 1978 and underwent renovations recently.
HOK Associates, the Kansas City, Mo., architectural firm the city hired to develop plans for the new arena, has estimated the cost of a new arena to be closer to $40 million instead of the $30 million city councilors said last year that a new arena would cost.
Building the new arena on the Penobscot River waterfront is another possibility, although the city has wanted to rebuild the area with shops and a hotel and conference center.
Building at Bass Park next to the current Auditorium and Civic Center is also a possibility. However, a proposal by the new owner of operations at Bangor Raceway to overhaul the park would leave no room for a new arena. The City Council granted tentative developer status to Capital Seven at its meeting.
BEP tables Wal-Mart superstore application
Unexpected twists to the BACORD vs. Wal-Mart saga are to be expected now that the state Board of Environmental Protection has delayed ruling on whether the nation's No. 1 retailer can build a 224,000-square foot superstore next to the Penjajawoc Marsh.
Despite a recommendation by the state's Department of Environmental Protection to approve a site permit for Widewaters -- the developer -- the BEP decided at its Jan. 17 to wait until March 20 to vote on whether to agree with DEP.
The 10-member board, composed of Maine residents with various backgrounds who are appointed by the governor, cited a handful of problems with the proposed project:
• Board members said it wasn't clear whether Wal-Mart would be legally responsible for financing cost overruns. KeyBank has agreed to finance $2.9 million in project costs.
• Some board members weren't satisfied with Widewaters' plans to offset potential damage to nearby wildlife habitats.
• The board couldn't decide whether it should consider the effects of the Wal-Mart superstore specifically or the effects of the proposed superstore and the existing Circuit City.
Valerie Carter, a leader of BACORD -- Bangor Area Citizens Organized for Responsible Development -- told the media she was pleased that the BEP tabled the matter. She said the board's indecision indicated that members shared BACORD's concerns with the project. BACORD says any more development on Stillwater Avenue near the Bangor Mall would endanger wildlife that call the Penjajawoc Marsh home.