LEWISTON — A downtown Lewiston casino is a gamble, according to councilors-elect, with a huge chunk of land at the center of the city as the stakes.

“I struggle, personally, with tying up that piece of land, the Bates Mill No. 5 land, for development for two years,” Councilor-elect Mark Cayer said Thursday. “I won’t be willing to jump unless there are some very major benefits for the city and for my constituents.”

Cayer and other members of City Council will spend the next few months getting familiar with the proposal from Great Falls Casino LLC and Lewiston petition organizer Stavros Mendros.

Mendros, local anesthesiologist Ron Chicoine and three unnamed Lewiston residents are leading an effort to build a casino on the eight acres that currently hold the Bates Mill No. 5 building, on the corner of Canal and Main streets.

The group is collecting signatures to put a purchase/sale option agreement on the June citywide ballot.

According to petition language, the group would sign
an option agreement with the city to pay 125 percent of the land’s
appraised value as of Jan. 1, 2010, if voters approve.

It would clear the way for the group to
begin collecting signatures statewide for a 2011 vote approving the
Lewiston casino. If Lewiston voters approve in June 2010, and Maine voters approve in November 2011, work could begin sometime in 2012.

That’s a long time to tie up a key piece of land, councilors-elect said.

“It takes a very important piece of land off of the table for another two years,” Councilor-elect John Butler said. “The way it’s structured now, it seems to work for investors, not necessarily the city. But I need a lot more information before I can make any kind of a decision.”

The investors group is continuing to work on the final language for the November 2010 state referendum. Mendros said it will spell out how casino revenues would be divided and spent more clearly, and how the Lewiston casino would relate to another proposed casino in Oxford County.Voters statewide would see that proposal on the ballot in November 2010.

According to the petition for the June 2010 ballot question, the casino will give 8.6 percent of all revenues to local government. Lewiston would get 2.5 percent — a half-percent for unspecified
infrastructure improvements and 2 percent for the General Fund. Auburn
and Androscoggin County would each get 1 percent of the revenues, with
the towns of Sabattus, Lisbon and Greene sharing another half-percent.

Efforts to clean Maine rivers would get another 3 percent. The
measure would also create a downtown Lewiston renovation fund, setting
aside 0.3 percent of slot revenues. Another 0.3 percent would be set
aside to purchase alternative energy for the city.

But Mendros said he expects the casino will pay more than 40 percent of its revenues to taxes.

“That’s information we hope to release in March, before we begin collecting signatures for the statewide ballot,” Mendros said. “Everything that’s included in the city vote will be part of that state initiative, but there’ll be more.”

Current state law won’t allow a casino operation within 100 miles of another casino, and would put the Lewiston effort at odds with the proposed Oxford casino. But Mendros said he expects his group’s 2011 initiative would reduce that limit, if voters approve.

“So if Oxford passes or not, I don’t think it’s going to hurt Lewiston,” Mendros said. “These are all details we’re working on. And if Lewiston voters like it, we can move forward.”

Councilor-elect Ron Jean said he doesn’t like the idea of casino, but others said they’ll favor it if their constituents approve and it helps the city.

“If it helps us, that’s fine,” Councilor-elect Stephen Morgan said. “My question is, will it stall the city, by tying up land we need to develop?”

Councilor Bob Reed, who is leaving office next month, agreed it is a concern.

“But we haven’t had any other offers,” Reed said. “Nobody has said they want to develop that land. I know, I’d love to have some other options. But they don’t exist.”

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