LEWISTON — A local doctor is one of a group of private investors hoping to bring a casino to the city's downtown.
Dr. Ron Chicoine, an anesthesiologist, said Wednesday he was hoping to secure an option to buy the Bates Mill No. 5 land from the Lewiston City Council before going public with a campaign that would involve gathering signatures to put a statewide ballot measure before voters in 2011.
"But the cat's out of the bag," Chicoine said, adding that he is working with former Lewiston City Councilor Stavros Mendros.
Mendros, a professional signature collector for referendum initiatives, was most recently involved in a campaign by Rumford lawyer Seth Carey to bring a private casino to Oxford County. That measure was defeated in 2008, but voters in Lewiston and Auburn favored the measure.
"When we were seeing voters in Lewiston and Auburn supporting these measures by 60 to 70 percent every time, we thought, 'What a great opportunity this was for here,'" Mendros said. "Why not Lewiston?"
Mendros said the campaign plan being partially leaked to the media may be only a small setback because after a newspaper story appeared about the mill proposal, several other local property owners contacted him suggesting alternative sites. He said the group was hopeful to have a site to campaign around as it begins a signature-gathering effort. He was hopeful the City Council would act on the proposal at its next meeting on Dec. 12. It would be the last meeting for this council, which will see four members replaced in January.
Mendros said Chicoine and the others involved wanted to get as much out about the proposal as possible but didn't want to do that before they could secure a site.
"We wanted to get an exciting location nailed down first, is all," Mendros said. The original plan was not to build new but to refurbish the Bates Mill No. 5 into a casino-type resort. When the council decided to have the building razed, the group modified its plan to locate a casino on that property, which borders Main and Canal streets.
Chicoine said he was not at liberty to name the others involved in the proposal, which was discussed in a closed-door session of the City Council on Tuesday.
Chicoine and others had hoped the council would vote to give the investor group an option to buy the 8-acre property where the mill sits, but the council took no action after the executive session, Chicoine said.
He said the proposal had been in the works for several months and councilors had been made aware of it prior to Tuesday. He was disappointed that details had been leaked to the press, he said.
He and Mendros said they were concerned that a group working
to win a referendum vote on a casino in Oxford County in the November 2010 election would outbid them for the space they wanted,
preventing the Lewiston group from moving forward with its campaign.
"Our concern is somebody comes in and scoops it out from under us and blocks what we are doing," Chicoine said. "I'm very disappointed because we were trying to be very discreet until we could secure a site."
The investor group believes a proposal that aims to help revitalize the downtown's cityscape and economy would be well-received both locally and statewide, Chicoine said.
"This is a good thing for Lewiston-Auburn," he said. "We want to be involved in something good for Lewiston and really wanted something in the heart of the downtown."
Chicoine said he expected to take some criticism from professional colleagues and some in the community who disagree on whether casinos are a form of economic development. He said a casino was the thing most frequently mentioned by people he talks with when discussing economic development ideas for the downtown.
A casino would be an environmentally friendly way to bring jobs and related businesses to the community, he said. It would also add to the city's property-tax base and might help reduce property taxes for residents, including the city's many elderly residents on fixed incomes.
"I really can't think of another industry that doesn't cost anything to taxpayers," Chicoine said.
Peter Martin, the spokesman for Black Bear Entertainment, the group hoping to win a statewide vote for an Oxford County resort-style casino said Tuesday he hoped the City Council would think twice about endorsing Chicoine's plan. He expects his group to win approval from voters next year. If that happens, they would be unlikely to back another casino only 20 miles away. Martin also said Oxford County was in greater economic straits than the Lewiston-Auburn area and that Maine voters would likely recognize that.
If Black Bear's bid for a casino were to lose in 2010, it would be even more unlikely that voters would approve a casino for Lewiston in 2011, Martin said.
"Investors in this proposed Lewiston casino are in a classic Catch-22 situation; it's a real no-win situation," Martin said. "If I were on the City Council, I would be very wary of inking a deal on this proposal." An option like the one Chicoine is seeking could tie up valuable property for two years with little hope it would ever be developed, he said.
Also panning the proposal Tuesday was CasinosNo! spokesman Dennis Bailey.
Bailey first suggested Martin and Mendros may be working together to get two new casinos in Maine in the next two years. Bailey later said the Lewiston proposal was as misguided as all of the others that had been rejected in recent years by Maine voters.
He further challenged the secrecy behind the mill redevelopment proposal.
"I'm just curious to why and who and why it's behind closed doors and
what's going to happen to Oxford," Bailey said."The reality is Lewiston shouldn't
get its hopes up. If Oxford is passed as the (proposed) law is written, Lewiston
couldn't get a casino."
Martin's proposal would prohibit other casinos from being built within 100 miles of the Oxford County casino.
While the Legislature could enact a casino-enabling law, it has typically left those decisions to Maine voters. Lawmakers also could re-craft the law, if passed by voters, to eliminate that 100-mile limit, Martin said.
Bailey believes voters are weary of the casino issue in Maine. "I think people are sort of like, 'Enough already,'" he said.
Chicoine said his group planned to push on, even if they couldn't secure an option on the mill property.
"We are going to go ahead with this, regardless," Chicoine said.