The smell of the sun tan lotion is strong on the five miles of soft white beach here this time of the year. And as tens of thousands of tourists jam the sands, local merchants hear the faint tinkle of rolling dice and slot machines.
The recent opening of a gambling casino in Atlantic City, N.J., has sent many here scurrying for green felt and playing cards. Though the Maine legislature narrowly defeated a bill last year that would have allowed gambling casinos, business people in this beach area to say it's only a matter of time, perhaps five years, before they get their gaming tables.
Business officials claim a proposal to build a 400,000 square foot concrete pier bearing a marina, restaurants, one hundred shops and more ties in quite well with gambling's arrival.
Says Old Orchard Beach Chamber of Commerce "It's about time the state faced up to the possible losses we'll suffer with Atlantic City having gambling," says Mary Tousignant, director of the local Chamber of Commerce, "Tourism is the number six industry here, but the state won't notice the losses we suffer until it shows up in their own pocketbooks."
In summer, the six aquare miles of Old Orchard becomes the largest community in Maine when more than 100,000 tourists swell the population. However, the resort has suffered a steady decline from the days when spindly wooden amusement pier, with a barroom that featured big-name bands, once drew a more monied clientele.
The last remnant of the pier, a 90-year-old Maine landmark, was destroyed by a storm last February. Since then a series of plans to build a new structure have been proposed, the largest from a Providence, R.I developer, CIC Developments.
An international resort development firm, CIC proposes a steel and cement pier jutting 1,000 feet into the Atlantic, complete with a rubber-wheeled trolley and docks for ocean going tour boats. Architect Morris Nathanson called it "a New England village unto itself."
Nathanson also says casino gambling "on a small scale such as in the Caribbean would fit in well at Old Orchard." Local merchants hope the $8 million pier will mean salvation for their resort community.
Tousignant adds, "Sure they (CIC) are banking on gambling. It would make that size project more feasible ." Spokesmen for the firm, however, would not comment on the gambling issue.
Tousignant said, "If we could get one very classy casino under strict be just what this town needs." She reality within five years. The tourist adds, "I think it probably will be a areas (Maine and the Jersey Shore) are in direct competition for the same market. We're going to have to compete."
That market, while including New York, Massachusetts from Eastern Canada. More French than English is spoken on the beach here and it's the Canadian dollar that businessmen scramble for during a short, ten-week summer season.
Architect Nathanson says his firm has designed smaller "soft impact" casinos in Aruba and St. Maartens "and that kind of gambling would fit right in at Old Orchard Beach.
"I don't think the area needs giant casinos like the ones in Las Vegas. Then you would have junkets and people coming in just for the gambling. You have to design the casinos for vacationers who want to gamble a little, not for professional gamblers."
And, he notes, "the casino operators tell me they prefer the vacation crowd. The professionals are more likely to win while the tourists come in bigger numbers and win less often. The resort is also better off without serious gamblers who come for the casinos and nothing else."
The last proposed legislation to legalize casinos in Maine provided for local voter referendum to allow communities to accept or reject gambling. State Senate minority leader Peter Danton, a democrat from this area, says his committee on legal affairs approved the last gambling bill 12 to 1. But that bill failed, "because we had just lottery and people wanted to see how that worked before going into casinos."
The man who sponsored the last gambling bill, Democratic state representative Lawrence Biron of Lewiston says, "The major islands off our coast would be ideal sites for gambling. It could be controlled very easily." Vowing to continue his fight to legalize gambling here, he says, "Arguments against it were that gambling will bring in organized crime. That's just not true. We've got a lot to offer and New Jersey is the pits.W're got to capitalize on that."
Francis Garneau, an Old Orchard Beach hotel operators says, "Legalized gambling will inevitably come to Old Orchard Beach. It's not far down the pike, not more than five years. By then we'll have seen the mistakes made in New Jersey."