LEWISTON, Maine — Don’t expect any fancy-pants artist’s renderings, reports from paid analysts, or chest-thumping about hiring specifics.
Organizers want the campaign behind the proposed $100 million Lewiston casino to be a decidedly don’t-overpromise-and-underdeliver affair.
So they’ve kept things simple.
And very quiet.
The campaign that supports Question 3 is hitting TV this week with less than a month to go before Election Day. Its new spokesman, Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert, hasn’t even been officially introduced as spokesman.
“You get in too early, you turn people off,” said campaign manager Stavros Mendros, the force behind the signature drive that got the referendum question on the ballot.
He said a slot-machine maker is fronting $1 million for a marketing push.
Local investors had to agree to use that company’s machines exclusively if the question passes.
The casino could bring 500 jobs to a renovated Bates Mill No. 5 in the heart of Maine’s second-largest city, but too much remains uncertain to commit to an impact and a look, said campaign treasurer Peter Robinson.
“I think it would be irresponsible to be hauling out drawings and trying to give an impression,” he said. “The average person would be, ‘How can you even know this if you don’t know if there’s a casino in Biddeford?’”
The group’s so-far-muted message: Save the mill. Re-energize the downtown. And, why not a casino here?
“We can address that issue that has just stumped everyone for years: What do we do with that [Bates Mill] building?” Robinson said.
The Lewiston proposal is on the Nov. 8 ballot after Question 2, which would approve racinos in Biddeford and Washington County. If both questions pass, Maine will move from two gaming centers to five.
Ocean Properties and Scarborough Downs, developers behind the proposed Biddeford Downs racino, hit the campaign trail hard two weeks ago with a website, mailers and a TV spot that trumpeted jobs, jobs and jobs.
“They’ve got some money to play with, so they’re driving the buzz,” said Chris O’Neil, spokesman for Mainers Against A Rotten Deal, a group opposing both Questions 2 and 3. “Lewiston doesn’t have that.”
MARD is against casinos, period. But short of tearing down the two gaming places that Maine already has — Hollywood Slots in Bangor and Black Bear Entertainment’s under-construction casino in Oxford — the group has called for a casino moratorium and more thoughtful placement.
“Maine’s so-called system of siting and regulation is a wild, wild West approach,” O’Neil said. “It’s willy-nilly, and any opportunist who can go out and grab some signatures is instantly considered a casino developer.”
Casino opponent Dennis Bailey will appear at three local debates on Question 3 in the next month, starting with the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce on Thursday.
“Lewiston’s been so quiet that we really haven’t weighed in on it,” said Bailey, spokesman for CasinosNO!
“Think about last year, the Oxford casino; they started airing TV commercials in the spring, stayed up all summer long, into the fall and just barely made it — it passed by a few thousand votes,” Bailey said. “I’m surprised that [Question 3 supporters] think they can get this through last-minute, with four, five weeks’ advertising.”
The approach, Mendros said, has been strategic. So has the proposed placement of the casino.
Organizers said they turned down overtures to locate a larger and less expensive project elsewhere in the Twin Cities.
“Ours is purposefully on a postage stamp,” Mendros said. “Oxford wants to be a resort casino. What we want to offer is a vibrant downtown experience.”
Lewiston’s downtown, he said, would be the resort.
Since a Lewiston vote in June 2010 found residents running 2-1 in favor of a casino in Mill No. 5, the group behind the proposal has paid the city $50,000 toward the vacant landmark at the corner of Main and Lincoln streets. That group, Great Falls Recreation and Redevelopment, is made up of 11 small investors, mostly local. They will owe $100,000 in December if the measure passes, and will pay the property’s full market value after that.
Transforming the 350,000-square-foot space into a casino will take significant outside funding. Mendros said Great Falls won’t sign a deal with a developer until after the referendum, but it will reveal potential partners ahead of the vote.
The partner will have to be vetted by the city, then it will work on studies and specifics. Local investors, though, have ideas.
Mendros sees 700 to 1,000 slot machines (the referendum allows up to 1,500), table games, entertainment space, maybe a slice of Androscoggin River running through the mill, and a separate but attached hotel with store or two and a buffet.
It’s minimalist by design, said Robinson, who took a stopwatch and walked the downtown measuring eateries in a five-minute circle. Fish Bones, Fuel, Mother India, Simones’, DaVinci’s and Gritty’s.
“[Foxwoods] has 35 restaurants there and a number of hotels, a golf course,” Robinson said. “They have everything you want there and no incentive to go anywhere. That’s the model for casinos everywhere. We’ve taken that model and turned it on its head.
“We can’t build 1 million different things; we don’t have the room,” he said. “It’s a conscious choice.”
Lewiston-born anesthesiologist Ron Chicoine, the largest of the investors, said there’s room for other entrepreneurs to step in.
“We want people to enjoy their time and entertain themselves at the casino, but we want them, even more importantly, to come to Lewiston,” Chicoine said. “We want a casino to be a part of a whole.”
As a kid, he remembers school shopping on Lisbon Street and hitting shops there for Christmas. “The downtown was a thriving place,” Chicoine said. “I’d like to see it come back.”
Gilbert said he got involved as an unpaid spokesman for Great Falls Recreation and Redevelopment and the People of Lewiston-Auburn, a political action committee also supporting Question 3, because of the local impact. (That PAC, backed by businesspeople, Mendros said, with former police chief and restaurateur Bill Welch as treasurer, will be officially announced next week.)
Based on Hollywood Slots’ experience in Bangor, Gilbert said, a casino here could employ 500 people, of various skill levels, at wages between $28,000 and $32,000 a year with benefits.
“Where else have we seen that of late?” Gilbert said.
A TV commercial shot in Mill No. 5 with the mayor last weekend is set to start airing soon.
As of Friday, four PACs oppose Question 3 — CasinosNO!, Friends of Oxford Casino, No More Casinos Maine, and Penobscot County for Table Games & Jobs — and one, Green Jobs for ME, is registered in favor, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Green Jobs for ME is affiliated with Great Falls.
Mendros said he has been happy with internal polling numbers. Low turnout statewide could work in the casino’s favor.
“We’re hoping for a big turnout of Lewiston-Auburn to really skew the numbers,” he said.
Mendros said he doesn’t buy the argument that five casinos would be too many, a move Bailey says would leave Maine with more slot machines, per capita, than any state east of the Mississippi.
“Why should anyone in Maine care if we overbuild?” Mendros said. If it opens and doesn’t draw customers, “Our billionaire developer loses some money after creating 800 jobs to build it. The building goes back to the city totally rehabbed. How is that a downside to anyone but me?”
If Question 3 passes, Great Falls would immediately apply for a temporary facility somewhere in Lewiston that could open as soon as February.
Ground would be broken to rehab the mill in the spring. A new casino would open in the summer of 2013.
Robinson said the outcome of Question 2 — a new gambling complex in Biddeford — would affect the size of development here. Biddeford would probably get the most traffic, he said, then Lewiston, then Oxford.
O’Neil, with anti-casino group MARD, is concerned about a sympathy vote.
“For years, anybody who’s traveled around Maine goes to Lewiston and they get a sense of tragedy,” he said. “I remember my grandfather talked about what a great community that was and a teeming downtown with department stores. That’s a soft spot in a lot of people’s hearts.”
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