LEWISTON – Supporters of the proposal for a casino in Lewiston, including city officials, are urging voters to give the plan a chance.

Opponents say the project won’t spark the downtown revitalization that’s being promised.

For years, the city has struggled with what to do with Bates Mill No. 5, a sprawling building that opened in 1914 and was strong enough to hold 500 Jacquard looms on the second floor.

Designed by Albert Kahn, a prominent architect who built many factories in Detroit, the building features a sawtooth roof design, which acted as a kind of skylight for the workers below.

When the mill closed in 2000, the city was left with a vacant building the length of two football fields in a high-profile location. The city has considered new uses for the building, and spent years on a convention center concept that never attracted the funding needed to become a reality.

In April 2009, the City Council voted to begin taking bids for demolition of the mill. But it reversed itself a year later. Three months after that, city voters approved a ballot measure to give Great Falls Recreation and Redevelopment LLC an option to buy the building. Those developers now need statewide approval to open a casino at the site, which is Question 3 on the Nov. 8 ballot.

“It’s going to provide a lot of jobs,” said Dr. Ron Chicoine, the largest investor in the project and an anesthesiologist who grew up in Lewiston.

Chicoine, whose grandfather worked in the mill as a handyman, said he remembers when downtown Lewiston was a busy place where children went school shopping. He wants the mill to be saved and to serve as an anchor for entertainment in the downtown.

Their agreement with the city gives the developers the option to tear down the mill and rebuild if necessary, but Chicoine said he feels strongly that it should be preserved.

“It’s kind of an eyesore now,” he said. “I don’t want it to look like that.”

Dennis Bailey, spokesman for CasinosNo!, one of four groups that are opposing the gambling questions on the ballot, said voters should not buy into the argument that a casino will save downtown Lewiston.

“Atlantic City was a slum,” he said. “They brought in casinos and it’s still a slum. Other businesses are likely to fail, because people will spend their money at the casino instead of on Main Street.”

So far, the supporters of Question 3 have admittedly kept a low profile. While there are red signs urging a “yes” vote in Lewiston, they have yet to pop up across the state. There have been no statewide television ads.

Chicoine, who owns 24 percent of the project, said he and the other investors believe most voters are aware that there will be gambling questions on the ballot. Great Falls will use the four remaining weeks until the election to convince people that the casino project should be approved, he said.

Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said except for a call from a pollster and a television ad for Question 2, which would allow racinos in Biddeford and Calais, there has been no campaigning.

“It is really surprising how little there has been on either side,” he said.

Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert, who is serving as the spokesman for the developers, said television ads will be on the air soon. Gilbert said his support for the project stems from a focus on jobs.

In the short term, hundreds of construction jobs would be created, followed by good-paying jobs with benefits as the casino hires its staff, he said.

The city would get $2.3 million to $4.6 million in additional tax revenue, said Gilbert, who envisions the casino in part of the mill building, along with a conference center.

“It’s the state of Maine that will benefit,” he said. “It’s about jobs.”

Gambling opponents have argued in recent weeks that the state is on the verge of a significant expansion of gaming.

Besides the Nov. 8 ballot questions, a casino in Oxford County is scheduled to open in the spring, and Hollywood Slots in Bangor will ask Penobscot County voters next month to allow it to add table games.

Gilbert doesn’t see the expansion as a problem.

“We’re a large state,” he said. “I think we can accommodate all of them.”

There are still many details to be settled on the Lewiston project.

The group has not done a detailed analysis of what the project would entail, but Chicoine said that if it gets approval in November, it will move quickly to open the casino.

A restaurant and other entertainment options could follow, but he said the group did not want to spend money on planning before it had approval from voters.

Chicoine said nearly all of the investors live in Maine. To his knowledge, his sister who lives in New Hampshire is the only out-of-state investor. He said he does not know how many investors there are in total.

Campaign finance reports filed last week show that the biggest contributor to the Question 3 campaign has been a gaming company from Georgia called GT Source. The company has donated $33,200 out of total reported receipts of $41,654 for the year. Chicoine said the company, which designs slot machines, hopes to sell slots to the casino.

During a tour of the building, Lewiston Economic Development Director Lincoln Jeffers said he has tried for years to lure investors to the mill. The city has taken steps to stabilize the building, including adding steel beams and corrugated sheet metal in areas inside, Jeffers said.

Although smaller mills nearby have been successfully redeveloped into banks, restaurants and a brewery, big Bates Mill No. 5 presents its own set of issues.

“As an economic development guy, it’s a very challenging footprint,” he said.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

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