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Senecas Vote on Casinos in Buffalo and Niagara Falls

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By Mark Scott

Buffalo, NY – The long-awaited casino referendum will be held Tuesday by the Seneca Nation of Indians. About 4,500 members of the nation are eligible to vote. The fate of proposed Seneca-run casinos in Buffalo and Niagara Falls is riding on the outcome of the vote.

It was nearly one year ago that a memorandum of understanding was agreed to by Governor Pataki and the Seneca Nation on the issue of casino gambling. Optimism swelled. There was even hope the Niagara Falls casino would have opened by now. But the road that led from last June's announcement to today's vote has been filled with obstacles.

First, there was opposition by the Democratic-controlled State Assembly. When that was finally resolved in October, it took several more months for Seneca tribal leaders to agree on a final compact with the state. And it wasn't even certain the referendum would be held until a Seneca court yesterday rejected a last-minute attempt to stop it.

While Cyrus Schindler says he's optimistic the referendum will pass, casino opponent Susan Abrams is not so sure.

"Certainly, people are not supporting the casino referendum in the circles I travel in," Abrams said. "What's surprising to me is that people who do travel with those who take a pro-casino position have stated they're not supporting it because, generally, it's a bad deal. So, we'll see where people stand on this issue when the votes are in."

Schindler and other supporters are touting the economic benefits casinos would bring to the nation's Cattaraugus and Allegany reservations. Many Senecas now live in poverty. But Schindler says that will change once casino-generated revenue begins to flow. Corey Aronovitz agrees. He's one of the nation's leading experts on Indian-run casinos and teaches gaming law at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

"Since the advent of Native American gaming, we have seen tremendous infrastructure development," Aronovitz said. "That includes health care and child care, adequate shelter for tribal members as well as the development of roads, water facilities and sewers."

While Seneca leaders expect their economy to soar, so, too, do the leaders of the two cities where the casinos will be located. Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello is confident a casino at the Statler Tower downtown will provide a significant boost to a city struggling to survive. Yet, questions remain, like who will pay for such city services as fire protection. Masiello believes the Senecas will.

"This casino should generate private sector investment, should help us to expand our tax base and create private sector jobs," Masiello said. "The Senecas will need to pay for city services it utilizes, perhaps a payment in lieu of taxes. We're going to make sure that happens."

But others aren't convinced of the casino's economic benefits. A newly formed group calling itself "Citizens Against Casino Gambling in Erie County" argues the Buffalo casino will not draw significant tourist dollars and will instead "suck up" money now being spent on other local entertainment options. In Niagara Falls though, it may be a different story. There are already millions of tourists a casino can draw from, many of whom are now spending their money at Casino Niagara across the border in Canada. Yet, even Governor Pataki is careful not to paint a casino as a cure-all for the ailing U.S. side of the Falls.

"The USA-Niagara Development Corporation is investing in downtown Niagara Falls now," Pataki said. "It's not contingent at all on a casino coming. We're doing things such as installing new high-speed elevators at the observation tower. We're making other improvements to the park. I'm hopeful the outcome of the referendum will be positive. But we're not going to sit back and wait."

Most Native American-run casinos in the country operate on reservations. Never before has a tribe opened a casino in a metropolitan area. And that says gaming expert Corey Aronovitz is why many around the country will be watching the outcome of Tuesday's vote.

"People will be looking to see if this is an acceptable project," he said. "By that I mean is traffic controlled appropriately? Are there any risks to patron safety? Does it affect local businesses, such as eateries and nightclubs? Are they impacted by having a Native American casino so close by?"

There are more than one million people living in the eight counties of Western New York. Yet, just 4,500 will have a say in a decision that will have tremendous ramifications on the economic future of both Buffalo and Niagara Falls. All the rest of us are able to do is watch and see what happens.