City considers plan to take over canals

LEWISTON —  The city could take over the downtown canals in a bid to keep them viable for future development.

At Monday night's Planning Board meeting, Lincoln Jeffers, assistant to the city administrator, sketched out a plan to privatize Lewiston's canals. The canals are currently owned by Florida Power and Light.

"What drives it more is that if these are publicly owned, we can turn them into assets, Jeffers said. "We can mow the banks and make them something people can more easily interact with."

Jeffers said the city doesn't have a plan for what to do with the canals yet. If councilors approve some sort of a deal, he expects it would be settled by April.

"Right now, we're trying to determine if it's something we can even do," Jeffers said. "If we can, we'll have time to decide what we can do with them."

The canals were dug in mid-1800s and have been a feature of the downtown ever since. The 4,400-foot-long main canal runs from just above the Great Falls, through downtown along Canal Street to Gulley Brook, where it empties back into the Androscoggin River. 

The Cross Canal cuts off from the main canal at about Ash Street, running to the river. The lower canal cuts off from the Cross Canal at about Oxford Street, running parallel to the main canal before turning back to the river at about Chestnut Street.

"This has been discussed and talked about for years," Jeffers said. "But there are so many pieces, and it's a complex deal."

The plan would let the city close down its last remaining electrical generator, housed in a building along the canal at the southern end of the old Androscoggin Mill. Jeffers said that generator actually costs the city as much as $70,000 per year to operate and it's in need of at least $300,000 worth of maintenance work. 

However, without the generator, canal owners Florida Power and Light would be able to stop supplying water to the canals.

"If we stop generating, we could lose the water in the canals," Jeffers said. "We end up with 15-foot-deep dry channels in the middle of the downtown, which is not something we would like to see."

Florida Power and Light currently guarantees Lewiston 150 cubic-feet-per-second of water in the canal. Under the current plan, Lewiston would close the generator and surrender its federal license to generate electricity. Florida Power and Light would transfer canal ownership to the city and would then guarantee to keep water flowing at 70 cubic feet per second.

The company would also agree to invest $12.6 million in taxable improvements to the Gulf Island and Deer Rips dams and the Monty Hydro generating station.

Lewiston would then create Tax Increment Financing districts, returning some of the new tax revenue to Florida Power and Light and using $750,000 of it to repair leaks in the canal system.

"Right now, the canal is like a leaky bathtub," Jeffers said. "We think that we could be able to repair those leaks and then reducing the flow to 70 (cubic feet per second) should be enough to keep it full and flowing."

Monday's presentation was the public and the Planing Board's first look at the plan.

"The question that's been driving this for so long is, how do you turn these into public assets?" Jeffers said. "That was the genesis of this."

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Don Raymond's picture

Upgrade hydro power generation capabilities?

If the city of Lewiston would acquire and upgrade the electrical generation capacity of the canal which is all ready licensed with the feds, it could give the residence of Lewiston a break on their CMP bills. Or maybe the city could sell the power it generates to CMP and use the capital to invest back into the the city for improvements like roads, bridges, infrastructure, etc...... Hydro power is still one of the most efficient ways to produce energy.

 's picture

Gondolas in Napoli??

The folks in Venezia will be upset if you move their canals and gondolas to Napoli.

Roger Castonguay's picture

Why not fill it in and sell

Why not fill it in and sell the lots? I never found it to be an attractive feature in the city and there's a natural water way one street over. Just my opinion, but I don't feel too many residents will get much enjoyment from looking at a canal. Forty years here and I was only intrigued when they drained it. It's amazing to think of the work that was involved to build the canal but I think it's done its time.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

I can see it now; gondola

I can see it now; gondola tours like in old Napoli...Might not be a bad place for the Pirate to launch his vessel.

GARY SAVARD's picture

If the canal system is such a

If the canal system is such a great economic development tool, then why not let FPL "give" them to someone like George Schott. I don't think George would want the cost and liability, that's why. Our city staff, past and present to some extent, as was pointed out in the earlier post does not have a great track record when it comes to smart real estate moves, but I guess it is fun to play with other peoples' money. You can afford to take bigger risks that way. I sincerely hope that we do not end up liable for the upkeep of the canal system because it will cost Lewiston taxpayers in the long run, I'm sure.

DAVE GUDAS's picture

Not liking it....

In reading this article and not knowing more... I shudder. We cannot afford this.

The City has done poorly making other "assets" out of other older decrepit property, the Bates Mill and the Colisee come to mind, and we're still paying for those. Now we're looking to get into the Venetian canal business. No thank you. Maintain the roads before taking on an intracate maze of ancient waterways.

The canal system freely described as a "leaky bathtub" is also falling apart. We've all seen them empty, with their 150+ year old walls are constatntly crumbling, during the periods they are emptied for servicing and to have the garabage amassed in them removed. To think we'll run them at less than half flow (because they are so weak) and hope for their simple asthetics to spurn development is way too costly a venture to even contemplate in these economic times. It's notable that Florida Power and Light is willing to simply "sign them over" to the City... which is a good indicator of their value.

 's picture

"leaky bathtub"

Linc mentioned to us the "leaky bathtub" portions relate more to the old gates and such as opposed to the actual stone canal walls. I think this canal transformation will be a touchy situation given the tight budgets and spending recently and we'll see what type of funding can be leveraged to help "beautify" the canals. But this first step is to gain ownership of the canals, not to fix them up to be an attraction just yet. That will prob come years down the road. We saw lot's of numbers at the meeting last night, but i'd really like to see some more detailed breakdowns of some future anticipated costs. We saw alot of, if we do this then we won't incur this but will still pay this until then but won't have to worry about paying for this or owe that but will lose this.. I just need to see it all on one sheet clearly broken down. Surrendering our FERC rights is serious business, and something I don't believe we can ever get back. Also, surrendering rights to approx. 2/3 of our current CFS flow is another thing we can never get back. I think this can work, it just needs to be thought through completely, and will all information clearly presented to everyone involved.

In 10 years I hope i can bring my children downtown to a "waterfire" type event like they have in Providence or Richmond.. There's alot of possibility, but also alot of margin for error.


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