Friday, May 24, 2013
Bill Nemitz Portland Press Herald columnist
Back then, they wanted us to believe that the "Oxford Resort Casino" would be just that -- a casino to be sure, but also a Shangri-La in the western Maine mountains to boot.
They dazzled voters with sketches of a resort that would create more than 2,700 jobs paying more than $80 million in wages and benefits and, upon completion of their three-phase construction plan, would render impoverished Oxford County a vacation destination for high rollers throughout New England and beyond.
That promise, ironically, is what now has them in trouble.
Last year, a "business-friendly" DEP and Maine Board of Environmental Protection gave the casino developers a site location permit for Phase I of the project -- namely, the slots-and-gaming tables facility that last month began separating locals and summer tourists alike from their hard-earned cash.
Enter Steve Hinchman, an attorney representing the Androscoggin River Alliance, who appealed the issuance of the permit on the grounds that Maine law requires the entire project -- not just Phase I -- be factored into the permitting process.
It's a logical requirement. Rather than evaluate the "resort's" wastewater discharge solely on the up-and-running casino and restaurant, for example, the state's rules require that any approval be "based on compliance of the entire proposed development with the standards of the Site Location Law."
Meaning, argued Hinchman, that 200-room hotel, conference center, spa and anything else that might produce wastewater should have been factored in before any permit was issued.
Justice Murphy agreed. In fact, she wrote that "the Court is troubled" by the fact that the Board of Environmental Protection, in rejecting Hinchman's appeal before he took it to court, failed to look beyond Phase I and at least ask a question or two about Phases II and III.
Had they done so, the state's environmental gatekeepers might have been a little confused -- or maybe a lot confused.
Since the casino was barely approved by 50.4 percent of the electorate in November 2010, those razzle-dazzle resort drawings have gone from warm and fuzzy to downright blurry.
A mere month after the vote, at a contentious public hearing on the casino site plan, lead architect Brian Davis told the crowd that all those extras -- the hotel, the conference facility, the spa, the RV park -- were "really what we call market-driven expansion."
"If the market says we don't need any more hotel rooms but a feasibility analysis showed that ... a bowling alley would really work here, those are the kind of things that happen as the market develops," Davis said at the time. "Right now, with the feasibility analysis we have in place, this is our best guess right now."
Best guess? What about the spa treatments? Where am I going to park my RV? And who in the world would drive all the way to Oxford to go bowling?
Since we're looking backward, when the casino opened last month, its spokesman estimated the work force at 400 full- and part-time employees. When, if ever, will western Maine see the other 2,300 "high paying" jobs as promised?
What makes Justice Murphy's decision so entertaining is that it essentially tells the Oxford Casino's developers they can't have it both ways: They can't use the promise of a full-scale resort to win votes on the one hand, only to tell state regulators after the election that anything beyond the casino was never more than a "best guess."
"While the casino can generally have an independent function as (Black Bear Development) urges, the resort and attendant buildings and infrastructure were clearly envisioned as part of the comprehensive plan," wrote Murphy. "Even the name of the project, the 'Oxford Resort Casino,' not the 'Oxford Casino,' clearly reflects the future plans for the project."
(Continued on page 2)