Rather than walk down Memory Lane and remembering the economic vitality that once was, when the mills hummed and the downtown buzzed, let’s drive down Future Lane. What might the Lewiston-Auburn of 20 years from today look like, and how could we make that happen?

From the new Turnpike interchange near River Road in Lewiston, drivers are greeted with a spectacular gateway. Outer Lincoln Street is well-manicured with clear views of the Androscoggin River to the left and the rising skyline of Lewiston-Auburn straight ahead, with its signature brick mill buildings and church steeples.

Boat launches and riverside trails, dotted with public art installations, invite visitors and residents to explore the Androscoggin from several locations along Lincoln Street, with banners on light posts reminding us of the next festival being hosted in the area.

To the right of Lincoln Street, commercial developments catering to river recreators merge with satellite parking for downtown. The resurgence of passenger rail from Brunswick to Lewiston-Auburn re-activated the former Lewiston Lower Branch line, which brings travelers from away, but also shuttles downtown patrons in a trolley to the heart of downtown.

Between Cedar Street and Main Street has seen significant transformation. Storefronts now line Lincoln Street, with some serving as the faade for additional parking garages while others are inviting first floor presences for apartments or offices above. Within those storefronts are boutiques and restaurants, from a great lunch counter to high-end establishments seating 100.

Between Lincoln Street and the river, multi-story buildings have been constructed with a mix of apartments and condos, built to see the river from one side and the mills on the other.

At the intersection of Lincoln and Main, a couple of hotel towers dominate the skyline. And in Bates Mill #5, the catalyst that drove the resurgence in downtown is humming away.

It is a casino.

Unlike previous attempts in Maine for casinos, the Lewiston-Auburn proposal took on a different flavor. Rather than allowing one facility to house all gaming and amenities like restaurants and shops, strict limits were set on the number of seats in casino restaurants. This led to the growth of restaurants in Lincoln Street and surrounding the facility.

In addition, some games were allowed to be placed at a limited number of other downtown locations, further spreading out foot traffic.

It almost sounds too good to be true, but any such effort has to begin with a basic premise. Cities, to be vibrant, need a centrifuge, something that attracts people in large numbers to spend their time and, more importantly, keeps them coming back.

If you can find one, in this case a casino, the community has to be committed to change and create zoning and land use rules to encourage density and mixed uses in one area. With more people visiting comes more opportunities to lure businesses and investment in the surrounding area. A downtown with restaurants, shops and art will also attract new residents.

Casinos as centers of gravity, unlike civic centers or arenas, not only draw people and their money but generate positive cash flow that is often “extracted” in the form of taxes and other regulations. Rather than please every interest group in the state to encourage support, those public revenues are targeted specifically for infrastructure to accommodate the growth in the community.

The resurgence of passenger rail, parking garages, convention space, riverside amenities and public art could all be the targets for those monies.

The debate cannot be whether or not to have gambling – the Maine State Lottery is proof that we like the revenue from gaming. Gaming as General Fund revenue, however, is not strategic, it’s just easy. And casinos are not panaceas, as was pitched in the unsuccessful attempts in Washington and Oxford Counties.

But if viewed as a means to target the monies already spent on gaming in Maine or elsewhere into areas where there could be a major economic effect, then it becomes transformative.

Jonathan LaBonte, of New Auburn, is a columnist for the Sun Journal and an Androscoggin County Commissioner. E-mail: [email protected]


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