Scarborough Downs gambles on development deal

SCARBOROUGH (July 18, 2007): Officials from Scarborough Downs have been meeting with town councilors about a potential deal that could bring a large commercial and residential development to the 485 undeveloped acres around the track.

However, the deal comes with a catch that councilors expect will make it controversial – Scarborough Downs wants to bring slot machines to the track.

Although concrete plans could still be six months away, town officials said the development would likely be tailored to fit Scarborough’s comprehensive plan and would be built on a property the town has been eyeing for years as prime spot for a large commercial development.

“It’s a phenomenal piece of property,” said Harvey Rosenfeld, president of Scarborough Economic Development Corp. “It could be an outstanding development if it’s planned well.”

According to Town Assessor Paul Lesperance, the 485 acres owned by Scarborough Downs is valued at $6.7 million. The zoning allows for only commericial, not residential, use.

Though the specifics have not yet been worked out, Town Councilor Sylvia Most described the preliminary plan as a “village-style” development – a walkable neighborhood with retail businesses on the ground level and housing and office space in the upper stories.

It’s called the “Crossroads Mixed Use Development District” in the comprehensive plan, where it is called “the new heart of Scarborough.”

In the comprehensive plan, the crossroads district is described as a place for dense residential housing, as well as retail and office space. The comprehensive plan says it’s not a place for single-story big box stores.

Most described what Scarborough Downs is proposing as “very similar.

“They really did their homework,” said Most, who worked on the comprehensive plan.

However, the project faces a giant obstacle – the town has twice rejected slot machines.

About five years ago, the town enacted an ordinance to prohibit slot machines, according to Town Manager Ron Owens. Two years ago, Scarborough Downs petitioned to change the ordinance, but the citizens shot it down.

Though Most is an advocate for a new town center, she has previously been opposed to having slot machines in town and said, “The impression I got was that it was a package deal.”

“At this point, I haven’t gotten any information to change my position,” she said.

Councilor Shawn Babine, who will be leaving the council in October, said he doesn’t think slot machines have much of a chance with the voters of Scarborough.

“We’ve said ‘no’ twice,” said Babine. “They’re going to need to do a better job selling it.”

According to Ed MacColl, the attorney representing Scarborough Downs, track president Sharon Terry is trying to “serve two groups she’d like to serve well – the harness racing community and the town of Scarborough.”

MacColl said other forms of gaming in Maine, in other states and online have given harness racing “a tremendous competitive disadvantage.” MacColl said harness racers in Maine today live marginal existences, working 80 to 90 hours per week to “barely get by.”

Sarah Nehila, who owns Nehila Racing Stable on Holmes Road with her husband Tim, said she gets up at 5:30 every morning to feed her seven horses before heading off to her full-time job as a certified nursing assistant medical technician at Springbrook Nursing Home in Westbrook.

“For a race horse to function well it has to have good nutrition,” Nehila said. At $5 per bale of hay and $10 per bag of grain, the Nehilas spend over $800 a month on feed alone, and much more on new horseshoes and visits to the vet.

“That’s a lot of money,” she said.

But beside the expense it’s a tiring job that requires a lot of overtime.

“You’re never really done,” she said, of the constant care that her horses require. “You never leave at 5 o’clock and call it a day.”

According to Kathryn Rolston, who handles public relations for harness racing at both Scarborough Downs and Bangor Raceway, the addition of slot machines to race tracks “has been instrumental in helping harness racing come back from the edge of extinction.”

Since adding slot machines to the Bangor Raceway in November 2005, Rolston said the purses have doubled in Maine – though they are still about $4,000 lower than the national average.

Mark Maroon said when he served as a Scarborough town councilor from 2000 to 2003, the subject of slot machines was a heated one, and he was – and is – adamantly opposed to them. Maroon believes the success in Bangor should give Scarborough a greater reason to avoid them.

“They’re already talking about gambler’s anonymous,” Maroon said, “and they haven’t even built the building yet.”

Maroon, who works in the mortgage industry, said he doesn’t buy the struggle of the harness racing industry as justification for slot machines, and said his own line of work could use the boost just as much.

“You could say the same thing for the real estate companies or the mom and pop stores. Slot machines have nothing to do with harness racing and never have,” Maroon said. “I could name business after business that needs slot machines to survive. There’s no difference.”

However, Nehila argued that harness racing has a special place in Scarborough and by not supporting the slot machines to keep up that industry, Scarborough residents are being hypocritical.

“They’re so against the slot machines, but they want to save farming,” Nehila said.

According to Rolston, harness racing has helped preserve some 100,000 acres of land statewide, but, she said, there is constant pressure from developers to sell.

“We all want to see those farms, and we all don’t want to see them turn into housing developments,” said MacColl.

Based in Westbrook, Reporter-The Current Leslie Bridgers can be reached at 207-854-2577 or by e-mail at lbridgers (at) keepmecurrent (dot) com.

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