LEWISTON — Mayor Larry Gilbert said he’s disappointed that his longtime friend and Lewiston School Committee Chairman James Handy publicly aired his concern that a temporary casino might be opened too close to one of the city’s public schools.
Gilbert, the unpaid spokesman for Great Falls Recreation, said a temporary casino would go through the full local approval process, including the Planning Board and City Council. There would be public hearings on the proposed location as well.
The casino, which is proposed for a retrofitted and remodeled Bates Mill No. 5, could be first opened at a temporary location, according to Stavros Mendros, a local partner with Great Falls Recreation.
Mendros told the Sun Journal earlier this month that if statewide voters approved a ballot measure allowing a casino in Lewiston his group would work quickly to get it open. Mendros said that could happen as soon as February 2012.
But several people, including Gilbert, said Monday that getting even a temporary casino open that quickly was unlikely.
“I would say that was wishful thinking on his part,” Gilbert said.
Patrick Fleming, the executive director of the Maine Gambling Control Board, the agency that would be responsible for issuing the licenses for the Lewiston casino, said the application process, which includes criminal background investigations and financial reviews of the company and executives who would operate the casino, can take time. Fleming noted that the operators of a casino in Oxford, approved by voters in 2010, had just three weeks ago turned in their completed application and that the Gambling Control Board had just started processing it.
In his letter, sent to Gilbert and the media, Handy outlined several concerns.
“I am concerned that critical information about the proposed casino is being withheld from the people of Lewiston,” he wrote. “Without 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.”
Central to Handy’s concern is information that has come out in recent weeks that Great Falls Recreation plans to open a temporary facility in the city while it works to renovate its permanent home at the old mill. The massive brick building sits on about 5 acres bordered by Main Street, a canal and Canal Street.
Handy wrote the proposed location and the details of how a temporary casino would be operated should be disclosed.
“If gaming gets under way in a temporary casino, what will be the incentive for an operator with no current ties to the city to keep the $100 million promises being made about the rehabilitation of the mill?” Handy wrote.
Maine voters will decide two casino-related ballot questions this fall. One would create the Lewiston casino, the other would allow for a casino in Biddeford and for another in Washington County.
“Keeping campaign promises will be highly unlikely if voters approve gambling expansions in both Lewiston and Biddeford,” Handy wrote.
Gilbert said Monday that while he disagrees with Handy on this issue and he is disappointed Handy used his position as the School Committee chairman to stump against the casino in Lewiston, he still considers him a friend. He said he and Handy have known each other for four decades, and have worked with and for each other on various election campaigns.
“I was really disappointed in the fact that he would send me this letter yesterday morning and before I even had an opportunity to respond he would go to all these media and get dressed up in a suit and go stand in front of Lewiston High School and so on,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert said the casino has never even been on a School Committee agenda and he confirmed that by talking to other members of the committee. Gilbert said Handy has every right to express his opposition to casinos but shouldn’t have done so as the School Committee chairman.
Gilbert said he wishes Handy would have reached out and had a conversation with him before going to the press but didn’t think it would destroy their relationship.
“It’s too petty an issue to lose your 40-year friendship over,” Gilbert said. “I like Jim Handy, he’s a friend, I like his whole family.”
Handy said Monday that the friction between the two men over the casino can’t but hurt their personal relationship, at least in the short term.
“It’s within my rightful purview to raise issues that can potentially impact children and families of school children that we have in our public schools,” Handy said.
Equally important, if the citizens of Lewiston are to be united on the casino issue, especially if it passes, they deserve more detailed information from Gilbert and others involved, Handy said.
“Trying to get information from the financial backers has been like pulling teeth,” Handy said.
“Regardless of the outcome of this vote, we should all be talking together.”