The idea of using Lewiston's Mill 5 for gambling isn't new. Ten years ago, when an Indian tribe wanted to locate a high-stakes bingo parlor in the remote mountains of western Maine, Mill 5 was floated as an alternative site.
Since then, a host of creative ideas have surfaced for the massive building, from storage shed to convention center. None has come to pass.
While we'd love to embrace a single, sweeping solution for the most prominent piece of property in Lewiston, the casino idea faces long odds.
First, there's the significant obstacle of changing state law to allow what would be the first full-scale casino in Maine.
The backers of Hollywood Slots in Bangor narrowly received an exemption, and only after holding a figurative gun to a horse's head. A lucrative "racino" was sold as a way to rescue the hobbling horse-racing industry, backers said. Some gambling revenue from Hollywood Slots now goes to bigger horse-racing purses, a sort of endless equine subsidy program.
But it was the save-a-horse angle that passed the Bangor plan.
Since then, Maine voters have turned down at least three casinos in various parts of the state. What would make a Lewiston casino any more compelling to voters from Fort Kent or Kittery? The jobs/economic development argument hasn't worked anywhere else, and there's no reason to think it would work here.
Another obstacle: The state's voters are likely to see a competing casino proposal before Lewiston's can hit the ballot.
A fairly deep-pocketed group of investors hopes to have an Oxford County casino proposal before voters in November 2010. Lewiston clearly can't complete the signature-gathering process before January, the deadline for 2010. So, voters couldn't see it before 2011.
By then, voters may have said OK to a casino in Oxford County, in which case locating another casino 15 miles away would be impractical. Plus, there's a clause in their proposal that bars another casino within 100 miles.
Or, more likely, voters will again have said "no" to another casino. If so, offering another plan so soon after a rejection would be foolish.
Anonymous sources say the Lewiston City Council is considering giving a two-year option to the local investors to get their casino effort under way. Meanwhile, the city will pay about $800,000 to tear down the current structure.
It would be unfortunate if this deal were signed, sealed and delivered behind closed doors (which seems likely) and on the eve of another group of councilors taking office next month.
That's a big commitment for the city, and it should be considered openly. It is a big commitment made largely by a group of people who won't be around city hall to deal with its implications. It's also a big commitment made on the eve of hiring a new city administrator who will start work next month. Ed Barrett could bring his Bangor/Hollywood Slots' experience to the table.
By acting now, the council would tie up that property for the next two years. That commitment should not be made so quickly, so secretively or by so many people who will soon be out of office.
The idea of a casino in Bates Mill No. 5 is clearly a long shot with a long timeline. There is no reason to act precipitously.