BANGOR — Eleven years ago, this old logging town on the Penobscot River opened a new frontier for casino gambling in northern New England.
Voters in Bangor — where a giant statue of Paul Bunyan watches over Main Street — in 2003 approved a ballot question to allow a slots parlor to operate at its 131-year-old harness track. Today, Hollywood Casino Hotel & Raceway, owned by Penn National Gaming Inc., is a mainstay, providing 400 jobs and millions of dollars in taxes and other revenues that enabled the city to open a $65 million civic center last fall.
At first, business leaders had a healthy dose of Yankee skepticism over a proposal to bring casino gambling to this blue-collar burg of about 33,000 people, the third-largest city in Maine.
Chart: Bangor vs. Revere
“Those of us who work on economic development were kind of scratching our heads and saying, ‘Is this the right kind of development?’ ” said Andy Hamilton, chairman of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce. “ ‘Is this going to be good for the community?’ ”
It’s a question now being asked in Revere, Mass., where residents on Tuesday will vote on a proposal to allow a $1.3 billion resort casino at Suffolk Downs, New England’s last thoroughbred racetrack, which straddles the city’s border with East Boston.
Mohegan Sun, a Connecticut-based casino company, proposes to build two hotels, chic shops and restaurants, and a 24-hour casino overlooking the oval race track.
The referendum — the second time in three months that Revere will vote on a Suffolk Downs casino project — must pass if Mohegan Sun’s application for the one resort casino license available in Greater Boston is to advance before the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.
Just over two weeks before the initial Revere vote, Suffolk Downs asked Caesars Entertainment to withdraw from the licensing bid over concerns it would not pass a state-mandated background check. About 60 percent of Revere voters endorsed the casino on Nov. 5, but East Boston voters rejected having a large portion of the resort in their territory.
The new Suffolk Downs-Mohegan Sun plan that goes to a vote next week puts the entire casino operation in Revere, using about 42 acres of the racetrack’s 163-acre property.
Revere political and business leaders have been unwavering in their support, citing as much as $40 million in annual financial payments and tax revenues, along with new jobs and business opportunities.
Meanwhile, vocal opponents, including a coalition of clergy, vow to defeat the casino ballot question this time.
Clergy leads opposition
“We just don’t think a casino is right for Revere,” said Joseph Catricala, 29, a founder of Don’t Gamble On Revere, a grass-roots group. “Over the long term, it will just increase addiction, crime, traffic, things Revere just doesn’t need.”
The group has put up “No Casino” signs on front lawns, printed literature, and is knocking on doors in this city of nearly 54,000 people.
“We’re hitting the streets daily,” said Catricala, a lifelong Revere resident. “This referendum is our last chance to keep it out.”
Religious leaders plan to preach and pray against the referendum.
“We’re encouraging people in our congregations to go out and vote ‘no,’ ” said the Rev. Tim Bogertman, associate pastor of First Congregational Church and founder of Friends of Revere, a group of religious leaders whose rallying cry is: “Because we believe God has something better for Revere than a casino.”
Bogertman said, “Our biggest concern is over the long term. We’re concerned for the families that live here. The addiction, the crime rates that this will bring, how will that affect the community?”
“Casino gambling is predatory,” said the Rev. George Szal, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish for the last nine years. “It destroys families. It destroys communities.”
People should be skeptical of the promise of new revenues and jobs, he said.
“The devil never has a horrible face,” said Szal. “He’s always dressed as a gentleman.”
Didn’t happen in Bangor