July 2003

July 12, 2003
Now what?
Voters say 'yes' to a racino, but hurdles remain for developer

Now that Bangor voters have approved a proposal to allow slot machines at Bass Park, Capital Seven, the company that manages the racetrack, must win a statewide referendum on the matter in November and reach a deal with the City Council before a racino can become a reality.

In the November election, voters across the state will have the final say on whether a racino ever opens in the Queen City. If voters say "no" to racinos, Bass Park will not have slot machines. The outcome of the November vote could prove critical to Capital Seven's plans to give Bass Park a massive facelift. The raceway management company, owned by Nevada businessman Shawn Scott, wants to rebuild the racetrack; build a new and enclosed grandstand, stables, clubhouse and paddock; build a 250-suite hotel, a restaurant, slot machine parlor and movie theater complex.

Of course, the Bangor City Council will decide which parts of Capital Seven's proposal will become reality. The city has owned the park since 1933. The park opened in 1883 as Maplewood Park, under the ownership of Joseph P. Bass. When Bass died in 1919, he bequeathed the park to the city on the conditions that the city name it after him and that it belong to the residents of Bangor for the public's use and enjoyment.

In January, the City Council granted Capital Seven tentative developer status, giving the company exclusive negotiating rights with the city. The deadline for reaching an agreement was set for May 1, but the Council has extended it indefinitely. No other prospective developers have approached the city.

Except for a few snippets that have appeared in local newspapers, the public knows few details on the negotiations, which have been held in executive session. Capital Seven's original plans for Bass Park called for the city to move the Bangor State Fair to a new site. The fair has called the park home since the park opened. Capital Seven reportedly offered the city $1 million to relocate the fair, one of the state's largest, but apparently the company backtracked and said the fair could use the racetrack's infield. Currently the fair uses the park's parking lot for the midway. Capital Seven's plans for the park involve redesigning the parking lot into smaller lots.

Other apparent changes to Capital Seven's development proposal include dropping plans to lengthen the racetrack from mile to 5/8 of a mile, scrapping a parking garage and scaling back plans for the hotel, which originally called for six stories and 250 rooms.

Shawn Scott still does not have a permanent harness racing license for the track, though. The Maine Harness Racing Commission granted him a temporary license for this season, which began at the end of May and ends in two weeks. In May, the Attorney General's Office asked the racing commission to hold a hearing June 6 to revoke Scott's temporary license and deny him a permanent one. Assistant Attorney General John Richards said Scott had failed to sign releases so the office could get background information on Scott from Nevada, Louisiana and New York, where Scott has done business. Maine law requires racetrack operators to be responsible financially and of good moral character.

The Attorney General's Office dropped its request for a hearing after reaching a compromise with Scott's Maine attorneys.

Scott and his partners would like to begin demolition and construction this fall so the racetrack improvements can be done for next season. But this hope does not appear realistic considering the lack of a deal with the city and the uncertainty of how the state will vote on racinos. Scott has said he would still renovate Bass Park without the benefit of slot machine revenue. The hotel, restaurant, movie theater complex and slot machine parlor would most likely be dropped without the slot machines.

Racino proponents fear November casino ballot question
In addition to voting on whether to allow racinos, Maine voters will also decide in November whether the state's American Indian tribes should be allowed to build a casino. The casino would most likely be in Sanford or nearby. Some proponents of racinos fear that voters against a casino will also oppose racinos or simply confuse the two ballot items. On the other hand, voters undecided on the casino question or opposed to a full-blown casino might be more willing to say "yes" to racinos as a compromise or "test" to see what the effects would be economically and socially in the only two places racinos could operate in, Bangor and Scarborough. Management at Scarborough Downs has already approached that town to set up a vote there on the racino issue.

Capital Seven racino campaigners will open an office in Portland to get support from southern Maine.

Bass Park neighbors likely to speak out
Few people have spoken out in Bangor against putting slot machines at Bass Park or rebuilding the park in general. But whatever the City Council and Capital Seven agree to do, the public will surely scrutinize any development deal. Residents in the Bass Park neighborhood will probably be the most vocal critics. All of Bangor's voting precincts voted in favor of slot machines, but the vote was closest in the Bass Park neighborhood, where the margin was 53 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed. When the city installed new lights at the racetrack in the late 1980s, some residents in the neighborhood complained about light pollution. Increased traffic and the appearance of "undesirables" looking for money to play slots are sure to be on the minds of the park's neighbors.

The City Council will also have to grapple with the question of whether the city should allow a private enterprise to have so much control over the park and reap the benefits of what racino proponents predict will be high profits. In recent years the city managed to get Bass heirs to lessen restrictions on the park's use, but the park has always been seen as the people's park.

Racino fans promise big returns for city, state
Capital Seven claims that a racino would generate as much as $71 million in revenue annually. A quarter of that would go to the state for education and social programs. Bangor would receive between 3 percent and 6 percent of the total revenue, with Capital Seven currently offering the city a guaranteed $1 million. According to a May 29 Bangor Daily News story, the city would lease Bass Park for $420,000 annually, with an additional $700,000 in property taxes on the new buildings.

The prospect of using a racino's extra revenue for the city to finance a new sports arena to replace the Bangor Auditorium is also weighing on city councilors' minds. Councilors are adamant that they will not raise property taxes to finance a new arena. Last year the Legislature voted against a bill that would have enabled Bangor and other communities to enact a local sales tax to fund such projects.

The city has hired consultants from outside the state to study Capital Seven's revenue projections.

City Council agrees to help Lumberjacks
Budget gives Husson College $381,000 to finish stadium

Despite reservations from some residents, the Bangor City Council voted 7-1 to give Husson College $381,000 from the new fiscal year's budget to help finish the John Winkin Baseball Complex and enable the Bangor Lumberjacks to play in the city.

In return, Husson will award a full, four-year scholarship worth $50,000 to a graduating Bangor High School senior.

The Lumberjacks, who moved from New York this season, play their home games at the University of Maine's Mahaney Diamond in Orono. Team owner Chris Hutchins says the team's success depends on the team's playing in Bangor.

Former longtime UMaine baseball head coach John Winkin, now an assistant at Husson College, sold his summer camp three years ago and gave the proceeds to Husson to rebuild its baseball field. Last summer the school installed artificial turf similar to that used at Tropicana Field, home of major league baseball's Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The turf enables the Husson team to begin its home schedule earlier and it provides a field for the school's new field hockey and football teams.

A donation by Dexter Shoe founder Harold Alfond enabled Husson to build brick dugouts, a concrete backstop, a press box, and install netting behind home plate.

Winkin wanted a minor league team moving to Bangor to play at the rebuilt field, and last fall Hutchins announced he had agreed to by the Adirondack Lumberjacks of the Northeast League, which consists of teams with no major league affiliations. The quality of play is between A and AA baseball. AAA baseball is the highest level of minor league ball for teams associated with the major leagues.

The Lumberjacks weren't able to play at Husson this season because the field lacked lights, permanent stands, rest rooms and concessions. The Lumberjacks and Husson asked the city to contribute $800,000 to help finish the stadium, saying the investment would be a form of economic development for the city. City councilors balked at that amount, though, so stadium proponents came back with a more modest request.

Bangor's last professional baseball team, the Blue Ox, played two seasons, both at Mahaney Diamond at UMaine. The team left for Quebec City after the 1997 season when the City Council fell a vote short of approving construction of a city-owned stadium at Bass Park.

Residents of a housing development for retired people that lies just beyond the Husson field's left- and center-field fences are not happy with the City Council's vote. They say that bringing the Lumberjacks to their neighborhood will disrupt their lives with increased traffic, noise, and lights. A few years ago Husson installed a 30-foot high net beyond the left-field fence to prevent home runs from landing in the housing development.

Husson must still come up with more than $1 million to finish the stadium.