LEWISTON — A delay settling a deal to take over the downtown canals should not cause problems for redeveloping the Riverfront Island, according to Lewiston Administrator Ed Barrett.
"Our goal is to still pursue the Riverfront Island plan," Barrett said. "I think there are two issues here, the city's goals and the steps we need to achieve them. We know what our goals are; they have not changed. It's just a matter now of working out the details."
Councilors accepted a letter from FPL Energy Maine Hydro LLC Tuesday saying the company could not agree to terms spelled out in an April 3 Letter of Agreement. The city and FPL/NextEra Energy were in the midst of a 60-day due diligence period, which was scheduled to end Friday.
Barrett said both the city and the utility want the negotiations to continue.
"We remain interested, and so do they," Barrett said. "We just need to get more information."
The canals were dug in mid-1800s and were first owned by Union Power. That was later taken over by Central Maine Power, which was later purchased by Florida Power and Light.
The company is now called NextEra Energy Maine, but ownership documents and deeds surrounding the canals and nearby lands reference many of the previous names and incarnations.
"There is so much history in the canals, nothing is ever as simple and straightforward as you would prefer," he said. "It involves agreements that go back quite a bit of time, from CMP to FPL. There are all kinds of interesting things you have to work through and understand all of the implications. I think that's more the source of the issues than anything else."
NextEra representatives could not be contacted by phone, but spokesman Steve Stengel emailed a written statement.
"There are several issues that arose that need to be resolved, and given that the City also was unable to proceed on the original agreement time line, the simplest short term solution was to terminate the agreement while we work through the outstanding issues," Stengel wrote. "We remain interested in moving forward with a transaction that conveys the Canal to the City."
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 recently released Riverfront Island master plan for redeveloping the downtown area from the canals to the Androscoggin River calls for public ownership and use of the canals. It envisions walking paths and trees along them and opening them for boating and other uses.
The agreement also would have given the city complete ownership of the Bates Mill building No. 5, the massive sawtooth building along Lincoln and Main streets. The city owns everything in the building but the electrical generators in the basement. Those belong to FPL/NextEra as well.
"We had talked about extending the due diligence period when this came up," Barrett said. "We all need to be comfortable that we've looked at it all carefully and we know what the implications are going to be."
The city and FPL/NextEra Energy have been negotiating for the canals since 2009.
According to the April agreement, Lewiston would close its last remaining generator at the Upper Androscoggin Generating Station — at the end of the Upper Canal and just south of Locust Street — and surrender its federal license to generate electricity.
FPL/NextEra would have guaranteed to keep at least 70 cubic feet of water per second flowing through the canal.