Any plans to build a new casino in Niagara Falls should focus on building a large, destination-style gambling complex like those in Las Vegas, several government and business leaders in the city said Monday.
Vegas, famous for its bright lights and glitzy casinos, has evolved to include more family-friendly attractions, including roller coasters, aquariums and theme parks – all weak points when it comes to tourism offerings on the U.S. side of the Falls.
“We don’t have all of things that go along with a tourist industry, as far as family entertainment and other things,” said Niagara Falls Block Club President Roger L. Spurback.
To truly benefit the city’s development strategy, observers say a new casino also should incorporate the opposite of the Seneca Niagara Casino, which critics have derided as a “black box” that gives gamblers little reason to venture outside.
A new casino on non-Indian land could spur the type of high-end hotels, family-style restaurants and secondary attractions the Falls so sorely lacks – and ones that would pay taxes.
Perhaps most importantly, a new casino could yield the state – and possibly the city – three times the amount of slot machine profits it receives from the Senecas.
“This could be the win-win that we’re looking for,” Spurback said. “[I’ll] never say no to someone who wants to bring jobs, who wants to bring new tax revenue we didn’t have before.”
Talk of a second casino in the Falls was fueled over the weekend when the administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signaled his desire to add a non-Indian casino on the American side of the Falls.
It’s too soon to know if Cuomo’s vision will become a reality, but that hasn’t stopped Niagara Falls from thinking about the possibilities.
Cuomo’s plan is seen by many as the latest move in the state’s chess match with the Seneca Nation, but Falls community leaders say the idea isn’t far-fetched.
In fact, they say depending on how it’s done, a new casino could be just what the struggling city needs.
“Sometimes competition is beneficial,” said State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane. “There are two casinos on the Canadian side. I think it would all depend on private investment.”
Others caution that pinning the city’s hopes on a new casino is the type of gamble that got Niagara Falls in trouble in the first place.
“I think it’s insane,” said longtime historian Paul Gromosiak. City leaders, he said, should “spend as much time trying to locate quality industries here as they do trying to get daredevils and casinos.”
If anything, talk of a second casino rising in the Cataract City has raised the city’s hopes of attracting a developer to its largest strip of blighted downtown land.
That once-vibrant stretch sits at the city’s main entrance, making up nearly half of the downtown core and is now an eyesore to incoming tourists.
The more than 140 acres of undeveloped property is owned by Manhattan billionaire Howard P. Milstein, the State Thruway Authority chairman who was appointed by Cuomo. While Milstein’s close ties to the governor have not resulted in any development proposals thus far, talk in Niagara Falls immediately turned to Milstein’s properties when word of a non-Indian casino surfaced Sunday.
That’s because the development zone he has cobbled together downtown seems to be the most logical place for the type of destination casino complex favored by Cuomo, some say.
Most of the land sits unencumbered and could benefit from easy access to the Robert Moses Parkway and Interstate 190.
“Its very easy to say where they would put it,” Spurback said “They’d put it on Mr. Milstein’s property.”
Some regional real estate observers say new casino development could help the city – but only if it is done the right way, spinning off private development and benefiting the local community financially in a more dependable way.
The Senecas and the state have been at impasse over the gambling exclusivity rights given the Indian nation across Western New York as part of its gaming compact. The nation says the state has violated the compact by allowing gambling at “racinos” in the region, and it has withheld about $500 million in gambling proceeds earmarked for the state. More than $60 million of that money has been withheld from Niagara Falls.
Also, a decade after the Seneca Niagara Casino opened, the streets surrounding the gambling center have seen little of the gleam and financial success of the Senecas’ tax-free venture that plays by a different set of business and regulatory rules. The city’s nearby entertainment district continues to struggle, and residential streets are marked by a declining housing stock and dotted with vacant lots.
Still, others say there are shortfalls to the idea of another casino in Niagara Falls.
Chief among them is doubt about whether the market can hold another gambling complex, especially since there had been talk in recent years of closing one of the two casinos in Niagara Falls, Ont., because of dwindling business. Over the past decade, profits from Canadian gaming facilities close to the U.S. border have dropped from $800 million to $100 million, and resort-casinos alone have declined by more than $600 million, Canadian officials said last year.
There’s also the question of whether a new casino in Niagara Falls could truly be considered a destination – especially with three existing casinos in Western New York, two in Southern Ontario and at least three more upstate gambling halls on the way, said Steven H. Siegel, associate professor in the College of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Niagara University.
Perhaps the most unsettling potential consequence of the new casino plan is what would happen to the Seneca casino if a non-Indian casino was built, said Siegel, who studies the effect of Indian gambling on the hospitality industry. If profits from the Seneca Niagara Casino dwindle with new competition, the Senecas could opt to develop a host of tax-free businesses on the 50 acres of sovereign downtown land they would still own, including gas stations, cigarette shops and traditional retailers.
“We gave away a big piece of Niagara Falls that can be used for any purpose or no purpose,” Siegel said. “They could just use it to wreak havoc if the governor was unfair to them.”