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School committee chair questions temporary casino

Lewiston School Committee Chairperson Jim Handy wrote to Mayor Larry Gilbert, who is the spokesman for the Lewiston “Yes on 3” casino proposal, to express his concerns about plans to establish a temporary casino in a location that has not been shared with the public.

Handy’s letter, dated Sunday, October 16, was a follow up to a phone conversation he had with Mayor Gilbert on Friday, October 14, during which the he said the mayor seemed unaware of plans for a temporary casino in Lewiston.

Handy, whose service on the school committee dates back to 1994, questioned in his letter what neighborhoods, schools and places of worship would be impacted by the opening of a casino as soon as this February. He also pressed Mayor Gilbert about the definition of “temporary,” suggesting that uncertainty about gambling expansion in Biddeford and redevelopment costs at Bates Mill No. 5 could leave a temporary facility operational in a Lewiston neighborhood indefinitely.

Stavros Mendros, member of Great Falls Recreation and Redevelopment LLC, asserted in the October 15 Sun Journal that sites in Lewiston are already being considered for a temporary casino. Reports in a story last week suggested that February 2012 is the target date for opening a temporary casino.

“I am greatly concerned about the proximity of a temporary casino to one of our nine public school facilities,” wrote Handy. “How close will the casino be to our schools? How close to places of worship? What neighborhoods will be impacted?”

With plans for the temporary facility apparently so far along, Handy urged full disclosure. Campaign finance reports filed with the Maine Ethic Commission show tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions coming from gaming interests outside of Maine in support of the Lewiston casino initiative.

“Have the operators and vendors of the temporary facility been preordained?” questioned Handy in his letter.

“Critical information about the location, size and duration of a temporary casino has been withheld from the public,” Handy said. “Every parent and neighborhood leader across this city should insist on knowing more before casting their vote on the Lewiston casino question on this November’s ballot.”

The Lewiston School Committee issued a resolve on Monday, making it clear that while Handy signed his letter as chair of the committee, the school committee has taken no position on Question 3.

This is the full text of Handy’s letter to the mayor:

People who share a love for Lewiston and its people can have very honest differences about what is right for our city’s future. No matter how spirited the debate, the community can unite around the prevailing decision if the process is fair and transparent.

I am concerned that critical information about the proposed casino is being withheld from the people of Lewiston. Without a broader disclosure of the project and its impacts, voters will not be able to make a fair decision about a matter that could forever change the landscape of our community.

During our phone conversation Friday, I asked you about the possibility of a temporary casino. You told me that you didn’t know if there was a provision for that. I believe when we spoke that you were unaware of this possibility.

After our conversation I did some research of my own and found a Sun Journal article that did indeed make reference to that. And Saturday’s Sun Journal has an article by Scott Taylor on this very issue quoting Mr. Mendros as wanting to go to the city council to pursue a temporary casino immediately after the November referendum if the Lewiston casino question prevails.

What is the rush? I think there are a number of issues that need to be fully discussed and disclosed before the election. It is not lost on me that Mr. Mendros sees what will then be a lame duck council as favorable toward a casino and does not want to take a risk that a future council may have more questions and need more answers.

I am particularly troubled by the news that casino proponents would seek a license to open a temporary facility as early as this February in a location that has not been disclosed.

As an educational leader in our community, I am greatly concerned about the proximity of a temporary casino to one of our nine public school facilities. Already the distance to the site of Mill No. 5 is, as the crow flies, under a mile away from the closest public school and even closer to Head Start on Bates Street.

How close will the temporary casino be to our schools? How close to places of worship? What neighborhoods will be impacted? Who will make the decision and what will be the process for public involvement?

And just how long is temporary?

Even the most optimistic supporters of the casino proposal acknowledge that a rehabilitation of Bates Mill No. 5 will take considerable time and money. They also acknowledge that Maine voters could dramatically expand gambling in Maine this November, creating great uncertainty about the potential economic impact of a casino in Lewiston.

If gaming gets underway in a temporary casino, what will be the incentive for an operator with no current ties to the city to keep the hundred-million-dollar promises being made about the rehabilitation of the mill? Keeping campaign promises will be highly unlikely if voters approve gambling expansions in both Lewiston and Biddeford.

Once revenues from the temporary casino are a part of our city budget, what is the likelihood that the city would shut down a temporary casino that has overstayed its welcome in one of our neighborhoods? Even if we wanted to, would we have the legal standing to shut down an established business if it does not live up to the campaign promises being made today?

Furthermore, if casino proponents are serious about their claims to license and open a temporary facility by February, they must have preliminary plans in place. In the interest of uniting our community behind the outcome of November’s election, they should disclose these plans now so we can make a fair and informed choice.

Have the operators and vendors of the temporary facility been preordained? I ask that because campaign finance reports show contributions from out of state gaming related industries.

Critical information about the location, size and duration of a temporary casino has been withheld from the public. Every parent and neighborhood leader across this city should insist on knowing more before casting their vote on the Lewiston casino question on this November’s ballot.

I anxiously await your response to my questions, either as mayor or as the official spokesperson for Question 3 on the November ballot, regarding locating a temporary casino in Lewiston.

Sincerely,

Jim Handy, chairperson

Lewiston School Committee

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