The polished slot machines fill the room with light and noise: a constant
click-and-whirl as customers press buttons and pull levers, and bells
ringing for winners.
The sound of money carries an almost deafening pitch. “It sticks in your
head if you play here enough,” said Tara Kelley, 26, smoking a cigarette
outside Hollywood Slots on Main Street. “I think it’s a great sound. Being
here is like being in a different world.” One year after Hollywood Slots
opened on Main Street, and three years after state voters approved slot
machines at the commercial harness-racing track, Maine’s only slots parlor
is thriving. The property, owned by Penn National Gaming, has netted more
revenue $32 million and counting than analysts, state and city officials
expected. The anticipated rise in police and social service demands have not
materialized. And funding from the slots has given Maine’s harness-racing
industry new life. “There really have not been any glitches or drawbacks,”
said Jon Johnson, the general manager who transferred from a casino in
Mississippi. That message of success has a lot riding on it. The political
future of gambling expansion in Maine could very well hinge on Hollywood
Slots, and the permanent facility the Pennsylvania-based company will begin
building next spring. That $90 million project, across the street from the
Bangor Raceway, will be licensed for up to 1,500 slots, three times the
number in the temporary facility operating today.
In 2003, state voters rejected a proposed casino that would have been run by
the Passamaquoddy Tribe and Penobscot Indian Nation in Sanford, but they
authorized “racinos,” or slot machines at harness tracks. Gambling promoters
are circulating petitions for citizen initiatives that allow a tribal-run
racino in Washington County and a casino in Oxford County, while gambling
opponents are trying to ban slot machines in Maine.
To gambling opponents, what Hollywood Slots calls success is just an
“They can only win when Mainers lose,” said Doug Muir of Kittery, spokesman
for No Slots For ME, a political action committee behind the drive to ban
slot machines in Maine. “This is a form of gambling that is too addictive,
it’s too risky and it’s too costly,” Muir said.
A number of studies show slots lead to gambling addiction faster than other
forms of gambling, Muir said. Slots are also connected to higher rates of
suicide, crime and other social costs, he said. In terms of the economy,
Muir said gaming takes money from other sectors, creating a net loss of
“There is no product made here,” Muir said. “It is just a transfer of money
from citizens’ pockets into their pockets.”
From the outside, Hollywood Slots still looks like the buffet restaurant it
Then customers walk into the sparkling lobby, replete with four ATM machines
and a security checkpoint. The interior is dressed up with movie
memorabilia. There is the sledgehammer wielded by Kathy Bates in “Misery,”
and the cape Robert DeNiro wore in “Frankenstein.”
Penn National spent $17 million to create two floors of slot machines, a
small restaurant and merchandise shop.
“Our guests are learning which machines they enjoy,” said company
spokeswoman Amy Kenney, during a recent tour.
There is usually a line at the door before it opens at 10 a.m. Next week the
business is changing its hours. It will be open from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m.,
instead of 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.
“We don’t want to have people lining up out there in the winter,” Kenney
On a gray Thursday morning last week, Hollywood Slots was the only busy
place on Main Street. A few hundred cars were parked outside, and by 4 p.m.
the lot was nearly full. Johnson said the average daily attendance is about
2,500, and has topped 5,000. Except for a run of summer tourists, nearly all
of the players are from Maine.
“It’s fun, it’s easy, all you do is push the button,” said Brenda Radley,
24. Instead of coins, the machines pay out paper ticker tape that players
redeem for cash.
Radley and her father drive up once or twice a week from Rockland, about an
hour and a half away. Bill Radley, 63, has gambled in New Jersey,
Connecticut, Nevada and other spots. He would like to see a full casino with
table games in Bangor.
“It’s good entertainment, whether you win or lose,” said Radley, who used to
work in the bottle redemption business.
Father and daughter usually gamble $20 or $40 apiece, and they don’t expect
to walk away as winners. For Brenda Radley, it’s not just about the slots.
“Back when he was doing bottle redemption, working seven days a week, we
never had anytime to spend with him,” she said. “This is time we can spend
Bill Radley thinks casinos are good for the economy. That’s a familiar
sentiment here, where the past is inescapable. From the Hollywood Slots
parking lot you can see the 31-foot statue of folkloric lumberjack Paul
Bunyan, a tribute to the city’s days as a lumber capital.
“We need something in this state,” Bill Radley said.
Across the street, drinking a beer at Raena’s Pub, Shawn Brad is skeptical.
“If it could stay like this, it’s enjoyable to a certain extent, it’s mostly
old people,” Brad said. “But you know it can’t.”
If the door is opened to full-scale casino gaming, Brad expects drug use,
crime and social deterioration will follow.
Bartender Maria Dorso said she can only judge based on what she has seen so
far: “For the most part they’ve been a really good neighbor.” Police Chief
Don Winslow said the department was called to the property about 75 times
since it opened, mostly to deal with minor accidents in the parking lot, and
the occasional drunken patron.
“I have been in this industry for 30 years, I have never seen the crime and
the problems that people talk about, and I have worked everywhere,” said
Johnson, the general manager.
Johnson said his staff is up front with guests about what they can expect
from the experience at Hollywood Slots. They post information for guests who
feel they might have a gambling problem. The state Gambling Control Board
has created a new counseling service, which should start up next year.
“What I always tell them, we pay back 93 percent of the money wagered, which
means that, yes, there is a portion that we keep,” Johnson said. “Casinos
are not here because everybody wins. This is really entertainment.”
The profile of the average player is a middle- or upper-middle-class woman
who is over 50 years old, Johnson said.
But several players disputed that claim last week.
“A lot of the people who play don’t really have the money to be here,” said
Tara Kelley, a native of Brewer. “They find money wherever they can, and
they stay here as long as they can.”
Net revenues have climbed steadily, from around $2 million last November to
$3.45 million in September.
The money flow works like this: Players have bet about $470 million since
the opening. About $440 million of that has gone back to players. One
percent of the gross, or about $4.7 million so far, has gone to the state
The remaining $26 million or so was net revenue. The company gets 61 percent
of that, and the state disperses 39 percent to various funds. “It is smooth
with a capital ‘S,'” said Robert Welch, executive director of the State
Gambling Control Board. The agency reviews financial records, and Welch has
conversations almost daily with Johnson and other managers.
“We have inspectors on the floor seven days a week. This really could be a
battle, and it isn’t,” Welch said.
Slots revenues have generated more than $4.5 million directly for the
harness racing industry, along with indirect help.
“The horsemen have been the primary beneficiaries,” said Fred Nichols,
director of racing at Bangor Raceway and Off Track Betting.
For the season that runs through Nov. 5, purses at this raceway totaled $1.2
million, more than double the $524,600 from last year. There were 44 race
dates this year, 28 last year, Nichols said. Average daily attendance was up
How long that prosperity will last, though, remains to be seen. There is the
potential for a ballot question seeking a slots ban, and other
The five-member state Gambling Control Board has issued a nonbinding
moratorium on any new facilities. The ban does not have any practical
effect, but simply represents the majority opinion of the board.
Board Chairman George McHale of Orrington said Hollywood Slots appears to be
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running smoothly now, but more time is needed to evaluate the full impact.