LEWISTON —  The city could take over the downtown canals in a bid to keep them viable for future development.

At Monday night’s Planning Board meeting, Lincoln Jeffers, assistant to the city administrator, sketched out a plan to privatize Lewiston’s canals. The canals are currently owned by Florida Power and Light.

“What drives it more is that if these are publicly owned, we can turn them into assets, Jeffers said. “We can mow the banks and make them something people can more easily interact with.”

Jeffers said the city doesn’t have a plan for what to do with the canals yet. If councilors approve some sort of a deal, he expects it would be settled by April.

“Right now, we’re trying to determine if it’s something we can even do,” Jeffers said. “If we can, we’ll have time to decide what we can do with them.”

The canals were dug in mid-1800s and have been a feature of the downtown ever since. 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 Cross Canal cuts off from the main canal at about Ash Street, running to the river. The lower canal cuts off from the Cross Canal at about Oxford Street, running parallel to the main canal before turning back to the river at about Chestnut Street.

“This has been discussed and talked about for years,” Jeffers said. “But there are so many pieces, and it’s a complex deal.”

The plan would let the city close down its last remaining electrical generator, housed in a building along the canal at the southern end of the old Androscoggin Mill. Jeffers said that generator actually costs the city as much as $70,000 per year to operate and it’s in need of at least $300,000 worth of maintenance work. 

However, without the generator, canal owners Florida Power and Light would be able to stop supplying water to the canals.

“If we stop generating, we could lose the water in the canals,” Jeffers said. “We end up with 15-foot-deep dry channels in the middle of the downtown, which is not something we would like to see.”

Florida Power and Light currently guarantees Lewiston 150 cubic-feet-per-second of water in the canal. Under the current plan, Lewiston would close the generator and surrender its federal license to generate electricity. Florida Power and Light would transfer canal ownership to the city and would then guarantee to keep water flowing at 70 cubic feet per second.

The company would also agree to invest $12.6 million in taxable improvements to the Gulf Island and Deer Rips dams and the Monty Hydro generating station.

Lewiston would then create Tax Increment Financing districts, returning some of the new tax revenue to Florida Power and Light and using $750,000 of it to repair leaks in the canal system.

“Right now, the canal is like a leaky bathtub,” Jeffers said. “We think that we could be able to repair those leaks and then reducing the flow to 70 (cubic feet per second) should be enough to keep it full and flowing.”

Monday’s presentation was the public and the Planing Board’s first look at the plan.

“The question that’s been driving this for so long is, how do you turn these into public assets?” Jeffers said. “That was the genesis of this.”

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