Lewiston native in partnership to build a downtown casino.

I guess I’ve worn a number of hats in my life: management consultant, financial analyst, attorney, software engineer and, most importantly, recipe-keeper for the Lewiston Greek Festival. But, my lifelong passion is neither food nor career-hopping — it’s economics.

I opened my first economics book when I was 14 and took my first econ class at Bates College while a senior at Lewiston High School. So, when I vote “no” on casino initiatives, which is what I usually do, it’s because I don’t like the economics of them. I can’t justify the creation of more suburban sprawl and the extension of municipal and state services for a venture that merely shifts wealth from one location to another.

Put the casino in downtown Lewiston, though, and you change the economic equation completely. For the record, yes, it will create jobs — hundreds — and will most likely create growth for the area. However, the economist in me also knows that creating jobs and growth are complex and tricky things.

What is significant about the Lewiston casino initiative, and what distinguishes it from any other casino plan we have seen to date (and, arguably, any other casino in the country), is the emphasis on redevelopment, revitalization and investment in infrastructure.

Redevelopment

In a very real sense, we are still paying for the creation of the mill industry in Lewiston. That industry left town a long time ago, but the ensuing process of economic disinvestment has continued for decades. It is easy to trivialize this burden because we are so used to it, but trying to move forward economically with an inner core of monstrous empty buildings is like trying to hike up a hill while pulling your house behind you.

We address this issue by allocating a portion of the “casino tax” for the redevelopment of Lewiston’s mill district. These funds are in addition to the millions in property taxes that the casino will pay to the city. For good measure, our statewide referendum will also allocate funds for other cities and towns with similar redevelopment problems.

Revitalization

“Revitalization” means bringing not just economic life, but human life, to a region. The significance of the Mill 5 location is that it maximizes the opportunity for positive spillover effects in the surrounding area.

It has been said that casinos tend to “capture” their guests so that other businesses do not benefit. That is what happens when you build a casino in the middle of nowhere, like Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun, or the proposed casino in Oxford County. You can’t compare those locations with Mill 5, where you can walk to half a dozen excellent restaurants in five minutes or less, or where potential retail space is only a block away or across the street. In fact, we have turned down some truly mind-boggling offers from local private land-owners specifically because we can’t create the same positive spillover effects at a different location.

This casino could be a bridge that links the riverfront and mill district with Lisbon Street — not only economically, but physically. Imagine a hotel/retail complex at Island Point, directly overlooking the falls and canal, with a skyway across Main Street to Mill 5 for pedestrian traffic. Then imagine a similar footbridge high over the canal, linking Mill 5 with Lisbon Street. A hotel guest at Island Point could easily take the skyway to Lisbon Street and eat dinner there, without ever stopping at the casino!

Only a casino could make that possible, because nothing else could generate the money needed to build those bridges. Indeed, a development for Island Point was approved by the city several years ago, but it fell through due to lack of financing. A casino across the street would change all that.

Investment in infrastructure

A common complaint about casinos is that they merely redistribute wealth. Curiously, the same could be said about every new business that opens. Nevertheless, our response is to allocate part of the casino tax to investment in infrastructure. Real economic growth comes from diverting spending from “consumption” to “investment,” since the latter creates the foundation for a greater economy in the future. To that end, some of the money being put into those slot machines will go to clean up rivers and to upgrade the state’s rail system.

I would love to see the St. Lawrence rail line upgraded for faster freight and/or passenger use. It serves the state’s busiest freight port (Auburn) and could one day link Portland and L/A to ski areas near Bethel and, conceivably, to the millions of people living in Montreal. We will do what we can toward that vision, by funding rail upgrades.

Timing is everything. The opportunity cost of waiting for our bill to pass is lower now than it ever will be, given the state of the economy. In the meantime, having to wait for voter approval gives the city a chance to get a head start on the development of a master plan for the downtown, which is important.

The worst thing that can happen is that we fail to get the vote, in which case the city will nevertheless have managed to keep the Mill 5 lot off the market while it develops its plan, and that’s a good thing. Finally, if we do not make Lewiston a viable casino option now, then we run the risk that the Oxford County initiative passes, and that will definitely siphon money out of Androscoggin County, but without providing any of the benefits.

Peter Robinson of Lewiston is a partner of Great Falls Recreation & Redevelopment LLC, which has proposed building a casino at the Bates Mill No. 5 site. A former software engineer, he has provided financial forecasting and analysis to Fortune 500 companies. An attorney and member of the Virginia Bar Association, he is a graduate of Lewiston High School, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and George Mason University Law School.


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