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Niagra Harbor site for casino possible

By Daniel Michaels, May 20th 2005
The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which once rejected the idea, is now open to offering a Buffalo waterfront site it owns to the Seneca Nation of Indians to build a casino.
County Executive Joel A. Giambra hopes to take that plan to the Seneca leadership, the same people he upset when he rejected their earlier plans for a casino in the Convention Center.

Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with a last-ditch plan to get the Senecas to convert the mothballed Memorial Auditorium into a casino.

And the Senecas, for now, appear content with building a casino in Cheektowaga, evident by what sources said was a move Tuesday by the tribe to obtain an option to buy 70 acres on at least two sites near Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

The owner of one parcel between Transit Road and Genesee Street confirmed Tuesday that a group of unknown buyers last week signed an option to buy 35 acres of his land, which government sources said is among the properties the Senecas are looking to purchase.

The government sources, who requested anonymity, said Delaware North Cos., which has been pursuing a casino deal with the Senecas for more than two years, signed the original option for the land, and then on Tuesday transferred the option to the Senecas.

Delaware North and the Senecas declined to comment. Seneca President Rickey Armstrong, in a written statement, would confirm only that the tribe has "narrowed our search" to Cheektowaga and that he would not identify the site "we intend to purchase."

Moreover, the Senecas, in an unusual public relations move, released details of a market analysis they commissioned, showing that a casino in the eastern part of Erie County would bring in far more revenue than one located on Erie Canal Harbor.

Site east of city favored

The Senecas said an eastern county casino - without naming a location - would generate $304 million in total gambling revenue, compared with $226 million at a Buffalo waterfront site. That would be worth $154 million to the state and $38 million more to local governments over 14 years under a revenue-sharing deal the Senecas have in return for their exclusivity deal with the state.

The Senecas said consultants believe that the region east of Buffalo is underserved by gambling ventures, and that a casino in the eastern part of the county would be better able to draw visitors from Rochester and even Syracuse.

"We cannot and will not be bullied into a poor location that places the assets of the Seneca Nation at risk," Armstrong said.

In Albany, Masiello joined Giambra on Tuesday to enlist Gov. George E. Pataki's support for a Buffalo casino. They pressed Pataki to help convince the Senecas to put their next casino in Buffalo, as originally planned by the governor when he signed into law in 2001 legislation authorizing three casinos.

Pataki, after the meeting, was noncommittal with reporters about which site he preferred, and he refused to say whether he would oppose the Senecas if they applied to the U.S. Department of Interior for permission to build a casino in Cheektowaga. Pataki would say only that Giambra and Masiello would be meeting with Seneca leaders to discuss "all the different options."

"The goal is not to impose somebody's solution. The goal is to reach a partnership and to move forward in a consensus area," Pataki said.

But Masiello said the governor said, in closed-door talks that lasted more than an hour, "that he still prefers the City of Buffalo" for the Senecas' second casino.

In the end, nothing concrete happened at the meeting, other than to renew the push for a Buffalo casino. How much Pataki will be involved in that effort is uncertain. "We're going to pursue them again," Masiello said of the Senecas.

Some see negotiating ploy

As the intrigue and cross-border fighting over casino location intensified this week, many officials are privately asking themselves the same question: Are the Senecas using Cheektowaga as a negotiating tactic to press government leaders to come together on a suitable Buffalo location?

"I've heard some people say that," Giambra said. "I don't know if it's true."

Cheektowaga Supervisor Dennis H. Gabryszak said he is confident the Senecas are serious about locating in his town. He said he talked with Armstrong on Tuesday, and the two men agreed to send a letter to Pataki requesting their own meeting with the governor, in response to the meeting of state and local leaders Tuesday at the Capitol.

"We believe the governor needs to hear all sides of the issue," Gabryszak said.

Asked if he is certain the Senecas have finalized Cheektowaga as their site, he said, "I'm not 100 percent certain, but in discussions I've had with President Armstrong today, he still maintained Cheektowaga is the preferred site. That's not to say the mayor and county executive won't try to get a casino back to Buffalo."

The opening of the door by the NFTA for land it owns along the Buffalo waterfront could be a major step by some officials to entice the Senecas back to the city. In an apparent reversal of its position earlier this year blocking gambling-related development on its waterfront property, the NFTA's board of commissioners is now ready to talk.

"We have a strong consensus that we need to do what's best for the community in terms of development of these lands," said NFTA Vice Chairman David N. Greenfield. "If it's deemed that gaming is what the community wants out there, then we should have that discussion."

NFTA parcel is 40-45 acres

The NFTA is signaling that a 40- to 45-acre parcel of undeveloped land between the Festival Grounds at the Pier and Lakeside Industrial Park might be available for a casino site. In recent months, the NFTA has agreed to relinquish the 80-acre Pier site to Erie County for development of a $100 million domed entertainment venue, and also has OK'd transfer of its boat harbor and beach to New York for a new state park.

In a statement promoting its decision for the Cheektowaga location, Seneca leaders did, however, note their earlier interest in the waterfront.

They said they backed away after the city's insistence on a downtown location and NFTA opposition. Armstrong said a stand-alone casino in Buffalo will not work. The Erie Canal Harbor location "offered the best chance" in the city to bring in more visitors and their money to Buffalo through development of a casino resort facility. "But our ideas met with stiff resistance," he said.

An NFTA source said Lawrence Meckler, authority executive director, and Giambra took a walking tour of the site Monday. Giambra, who has said he prefers that a second Seneca casino be located in Niagara Falls, now maintains that if there is to be a Seneca casino in Erie County, it "makes the most sense" for it to be in Buffalo. As for the waterfront, Giambra said he is looking at "a lot of different opportunities" in Buffalo. But, he added, "It's time to take a look at the waterfront."

NFTA commissioners reached their "consensus" during an executive session following Monday's monthly board meeting. While no action was taken, Greenfield said the prevailing view was that the board should be open to all development possibilities.

"The spirit of our discussion was that we should be open-minded regarding future use of the land, whether it's for a casino or something else that the community wants," the commissioner said.

In February, NFTA Chairman Luiz F. Kahl said the authority had no intention of having discussions with the Seneca Nation about developments regarding gambling, arguing that a casino "and everything that goes with it would get in the way" of other development plans for the site.

It was Delaware North that, in 2001, first floated the concept of a casino/hotel complex on the waterfront's Pier site. It is now Delaware North that is in the mix of things with the Senecas on the Cheektowaga site.

Option sold on 35 acres

On Tuesday, Dino Fudoli, whose family for years has owned a 35-acre plot in Cheektowaga, said his family last week sold an option to an unknown group of buyers who want to develop the site near the airport. He said the option to buy the land expires in a year, during which time a purchase price the sides agree to would have to be paid. He declined to disclose the price or the attorneys who represented the unknown buyers.

Asked if the buyers were Seneca casino developers or their partners, he said, "I couldn't tell you."

Sources said the group optioning the land is Delaware North. A spokeswoman for the company, Wendy Watkins, said Delaware North has had a confidentiality agreement with the Senecas on casino matters for two years since it first put a bid in to run a tribal casino.

Armstrong declined, in a statement, to comment. About all he would say about the Cheektowaga site Tuesday was to deny a story in The Buffalo News on Tuesday that the Senecas were looking at possibly putting in a tax-free cigarette and gasoline operation at the proposed Cheektowaga casino. He said Seneca leaders have long said no such shops would be part of future casinos.

"In the early part of our site selection process, we wanted to know if the Town of Cheektowaga was going to take us at our word on this issue, or whether they were going to be distrustful and demand that we put our intentions in writing as the City of Buffalo did," Armstrong said.

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May 20th 2005 Good answer: second casino in the Falls
May 20th 2005 Casino deal near
May 20th 2005 Pataki To Review Seneca's Casino Plan
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