Maine tribe still hopeful for casino approval

November 6, 2011 - 1:00 PM

INDIAN TOWNSHIP, Maine (AP) — Stung by past casino defeats, the Passamaquoddy Indians aren't opening their wallets to back a new referendum campaign that would create a tribal-run racetrack casino.

And that's just as well. With unemployment at staggering levels and tribal budgets strained, the tribe doesn't have money to sink into the campaign, even if it wanted to, tribal leaders say, explaining why the Passamaquoddies' voice has seemed largely silent during the high-profile casino campaign in the state.

"We're just not willing to take that gamble this time," said Chief Joseph Socobasin of the Passamaquoddies at Indian Township, one of two Passamaquoddy reservations at the nation's eastern tip.

Passamaquoddies, along with Penobscots, were defeated in 2003 when they proposed a casino in Sanford, but the same voters approved a racetrack casino that's now Hollywood Slots in Bangor. In 2007, Passamaquoddies tried again for a casino, and voters rejected them again. Tribal efforts have failed in the Legislature, as well.

On Tuesday, the Passamaquoddies get another chance.

Question 2 on the statewide ballot asks whether voters want to authorize the Passamaquoddies to build their own racetrack casino in addition to allowing owners of the Scarborough Downs racetrack to move to Biddeford, where it would become a racetrack casino, as well. A separate proposal, Question 3, would allow a casino in Lewiston.

Passamaquoddies believe a casino would give a boost to economically depressed Washington County as well as providing much-needed revenue to fund tribal government.

And they say it's unfair that an out-of-state entity, Penn National Gaming Inc., is allowed to run the Hollywood Slots casino in Bangor when the state's tribes aren't given the same opportunity. A second casino, approved by voters last year, is under construction in western Maine, in the town of Oxford.

"We should be given a fair chance," Martin Dana said as he worked on a tractor in the garage of a tribal building, across the road from one of three picturesque lakes on the reservation's land in Indian Township. "We have a high unemployment rate. That's because there's hardly anything here."

The Passamaquoddy proposal is on the ballot because backers of the Biddeford casino approached them with the idea of teaming up to give both casinos a better likelihood of voter approval. Scarborough Downs has partnered with developer Ocean Properties, which has loaned or contributed $3 million to the campaign.

While the Passamaquoddies are optimistic, they're not about to get their hopes up. And they are unable to put up their own money like they did in 2007, when they spent $800,000 on a failed referendum. Instead, the tribe is seeking to make its impact locally, canvassing local communities to shore up support.

Because it has spent no money, and hasn't enlisted help from a casino developer, the tribe stands to get a better financial deal if voters approve a casino. Should that happen, the tribe would be free and clear to solicit proposals, and would end up owning at least 51 percent of the casino, leaders say.

Here in Indian Township, about 600 people live on the 23,000-acre reservation, a land of rugged beauty 25 miles from the town of Calais, where the casino would most likely be built. Another 780 people live at Pleasant Point, the other reservation, which located 20 miles to the south of Calais, on the Atlantic Ocean. Across the border, more than 120,000 Canadians live within 70 miles of the proposed casino.

Times are tough on both reservations.

The latest figures from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs put unemployment at more than 60 percent at both locations.

In Indian Township, there are waiting lists for modest housing, mostly ranch homes built in groups of brick, clapboard, shingle or vinyl siding, depending on the era in which they were built.

There's a modern school, public safety building, health care center and even an assisted-living center. But rusty snowplows and garbage trucks that the tribe struggles to keep roadworthy underscore the tribes' difficult economic times.

On a recent afternoon, there were plenty of Passamaquoddies out and about.

That's because many are at home instead of at work.

Washington County, known as the "sunrise county" because of its location in the eastern corner of Maine, has a lot going for it in terms of natural resources. It's home to a rocky coast with dramatic tide swings, scores of lakes and ponds, and vast tracts of wilderness that stretch as far as the eye can see.

But the county of 35,000 residents also suffers from some of the state's highest unemployment rates. Many young people leave for work. For Passamaquoddies who are drawn to their ancestral homeland and don't want to leave, good jobs are few and far between, tribal officials say.

The casino could be part of the answer to the region's problems, drawing people from Canada to gamble and spend money, the tribe says. A 2007 study suggested a 600-slot casino, hotel and convention center would create about 200 permanent jobs.

Socobasin said critics point to crime problems if a casino is built, but he said a casino would actually reduce crime by putting people to work. Decent-paying jobs will go a long way to addressing many of the county's problems, including rampant prescription drug abuse.

"The simple fact of having a job addresses a lot of those social issues that we have in our communities in Washington County. It's amazing what a little bit of hope will do," he said.

Here in Indian Township, there are still hard feelings about past defeats. Some said Maine voters were racist in 2003 when they approved a private developer's casino proposal while rebuffing the Indians.

"Nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody wants to use that word," said Trevor White, the tribe's environmental director, who's not a member of the tribe. "You take everything away, and that's what you're left with."

Tribal leaders are focusing on fairness instead of race, said Clayton Sockabasin, the vice chief. "We don't say it much, but it's there," he said quietly.

In Calais, across the St. Croix River from St. Stephen, New Brunswick, residents appear to be committed to a casino, just as they have been in previous votes.

"I'm behind it 100 percent and I hope it goes through. The town needs something," said Karen Scribner, who owns Karen's, a restaurant on the town's Main Street, just a couple hundred yards from the Canadian border.

John Marchese, general manager of the Calais Motor Inn, said he'd like to see the tribes emulate the success of Hollywood Slots, which has revitalized downtown Bangor with a casino and hotel.

With the nation's seventh-busiest crossing on the Canadian border, about 4,200 vehicles cross from Canada into Calais each day, even without a casino. And a casino would give the region a much-needed destination, he said. "What's good for everyone else should be good for us. What's fair is fair," Marchese said. "We need jobs."