Councilors vote to spare mill, build parking garage

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LEWISTON — Bates Mill No. 5, the distinctive downtown building with the saw-tooth roof, earned a reprieve from demolition Tuesday night.

Councilors went back and forth on a planned 378-space parking garage in the shadow of the building and came in and out of closed-door executive sessions before deciding to delay the building’s destruction.

They voted to build the $4.96 million parking garage, as well.

Crews and subcontractors for NASDI of Boston were scheduled to begin moving on to the Bates Mill No. 5 site next week, with demolition work continuing through August. That’s on hold indefinitely now.

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Legal issues and mixed-up ownership on the land as well as better federal tax incentives ultimately saved the building this time.

“Tax credits, our negotiating point on a number of issues, the historic value and the future value of the city are all reasons for what’s gone on here tonight,” Councilor Stephen Morgan said. “It’s become clear that one of the things we have to do is keep the Bates Mill 5 building on the table for the time being.”

City Administrator Ed Barrett said the Bates No. 5 building and land was one of the properties  mortgaged to developer Tom Platz, according to the 2004 Bates Mill exit strategy agreement. According to that agreement, the city could lose control over those mortgaged properties and lose a $4 million bond if it failed to build 1,162 parking spaces through 2011. The city is behind schedule, according to that agreement.

Councilors have been split on building a new 378-space parking garage on Lincoln Street. A “no” vote on the garage Tuesday could have put their ownership of Bates Mill No. 5 in jeopardy, Barrett said.

Discussions with casino group Great Falls Recreation and Redevelopment LLC, which will ask voters to give them an option to purchase the Bates No. 5 property this June, made the issue even more complicated.

Councilor Morgan said councilors have had five different meetings on the garage and the Bates No. 5 demolition over the past month.

The council at its Feb. 16 meeting voted 4-2 to proceed with the borrowing and the plan to build the garage. That would have satisfied the contract with Platz for now. But a 4-2 margin wasn’t enough to override a bonding cap put in place by the previous council, and the seventh councilor, Ward 5’s Tina O’Connell, wasn’t at that meeting. Councilors voted then to table the bond.

Councilors were scheduled to vote on the matter last week when all councilors were present, but wound up tabling discussion after a 90-minute closed-door executive session.

Tuesday’s vote on the garage was headed for failure. Initially, councilors voted 4-3 to override a borrowing limit imposed by the previous council — with Councilors Renee Bernier, Larry Poulin and Stephen Morgan voting against. Councilors needed a five vote super-majority to override the borrowing limit, so the vote — and the garage — failed.

But councilors weren’t finished. They continued to argue the matter, then went behind closed doors in an executive session to discuss options with the city attorney.

When they emerged, Morgan agreed to vote for the garage, giving it a 5-2 super-majority. Morgan then asked to suspend the council’s normal rules and placed a new item on the agenda, suspending the demolition of Bates No. 5.

Councilors agreed to the suspension by a 6-1 vote, with Councilor Ron Jean opposing.

Morgan cited improved tax credits for historic preservation as one of the reasons to preserve the building, saying they may be able to cover as much as 45 percent of the costs of reusing the building.

Stavros Mendros, one of the principal members of casino-group Great Falls Recreation and Redevelopment, said his group was perfectly happy to have the old mill building.

“I actually think having the building part of our plan increases our odds of passing statewide,” Mendros said. “Voters could be more likely to not just approve the casino, but to preserve a historic building at the same time.”

staylor@sunjournal.com

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