There’s gold in the Maine woods!

Feb 18, 2003 7:05 AM

Have you been to Bangor, Maine, lately?

It’s a lovely little town of 33,000, with a multi-cultural heritage, a history that goes back to the 1700s, with arts and music and drama and maple syrup, and with great civic pride. It is Paul Bunyan country, and during the 1800s it was known as the lumber capital of the world.

It also has mercury-polluted waters, with a Web site warning to women who are pregnant, or expect to become pregnant, or even don’t expect to become pregnant but may, to avoid eating local fish.

And it has Bass Park, the municipally-owned complex which the Chamber of Commerce says attracts 100,000 visitors a year to Bangor.

One of those visitors in the last year was from Las Vegas, and he was interested in Bass Park.

More specifically, he was interested in the park’s little race track, Bangor Raceway.

Why?

Not for the woods or waters or Franco-American population mix or clear blue skies in summer and biting cold in winter. Not for the art or music or Bunyanesque tradition or syrup.

For money.

The Vegas visitor was Shawn Scott, the turnaround artist supreme, who turned $10 million into $130 million two years ago with a magic wand called Delta Downs, a racetrack that no one wanted until the state gave it slots. By that time he had bought it, and then a lot of people wanted it.

Scott bet big on that turn of events, and won big. He sold the track to Boyd Gaming, which has done extremely well with it and has no complaints about the huge profit Scott made in selling it to them.

More recently Scott invested $17 million of his windfall into Vernon Downs, a failing harness track in central New York, which also stands to get slots as soon as the legal wrangling over last year’s legislation that permits them gets through the courts and the painful process of how to cut the pie.

But now Scott is entranced with Bangor and its Bass Park, and he has fascinated the city council of good old Bangor with the plans of his Capital Seven Corporation to turn old Bass Park into a multi-million dollar racing and entertainment center. The Council voted to give him 90 days in which to negotiate the deal, with a final vote on the issue scheduled for sometime this spring.

If the council votes to go ahead, Capital Seven will demolish the present historic old grandstand, barns and other buildings and build an all-new facility, a new racetrack with a grandstand for 1,500, a parking garage for 100 cars with room for an additional 1,000 around the track, a 250-room hotel and conference center and a parking area for 125 trailers and 100 RVs near a reconstructed stable area with four new barns. The conference center also would incorporate a casino, which would be built only if Maine legalizes slots.

Obviously Shawn Scott thinks it will. It is doubtful that Bangor, Maine, has captivated him that much with its woods and fresh air and local pride and culture alone.

No racetrack in a town of 33,000 can succeed on racing alone, or even on racing with simulcasting of signals from other tracks around the country or the world. Bangor Raceway with slots might become a tourist destination. It would have to, because all of northeast Maine is not populous enough to make it profitable as a racetrack or entertainment center alone.

Come to think of it, I said the same thing when they built a $57 million track in Altoona, Iowa, near Des Moines, in 1989. I was right, too, but neither I nor anyone else dreamed that Iowa would legalize slots at its tracks in the mid 1990s, and turn Prairie Meadows into a gold mine in the middle of corn fields.

Shawn Scott doesn’t have to think back to Prairie Meadows in Iowa. He can simply think about Delta Downs in Louisiana, and the fortune it made him overnight. Maybe, just maybe, he can do it again in the Mohawk Valley of New York or the woods of Maine, or even both.