Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo may have plans for a new, non-Indian casino in Niagara Falls, but the city isn’t preparing to double down just yet.
Community leaders said Sunday that they would certainly welcome another gambling hall to their tourist community, but they view Cuomo’s plan as more of a bargaining chip than a reality at this point.
The thinking is that if Cuomo threatens to allow a competitor to the Seneca Niagara Casino, the Senecas will be more likely to pay the more than $500 million in casino proceeds owed to the state.
“Of course, he’s using it as a bargaining chip,” said Niagara Falls Block Club President Roger L. Spurback. “I would do the same thing.”
But it also provides Niagara Falls with a Plan B if the Senecas either win the arbitration or simply refuse to pay.
“The discussion of the possibility of a non-Seneca casino in Niagara Falls serves two objectives,” said Mayor Paul A. Dyster. “It creates additional leverage to resolve the dispute with the Senecas, and at the same time, it provides an option if the dispute isn’t resolved.”
Other observers said privately that the strategy is essentially a win-win situation for Cuomo and the state.
Either the plan for a non-Indian casino forces the Senecas’ hand or it gives the city a new revenue generator as it struggles to survive without $60 million in slot machine proceeds withheld by the Senecas.
It could also push a billionaire landowner with close ties to Cuomo to finally develop his blighted properties in downtown Niagara Falls.
Those options are all possibilities, officials said, but at the moment, the focus is on resolving the current casino dispute with the Senecas.
No city or state leaders contacted by The Buffalo News suggested that plans for a new casino would render the current dispute meaningless.
“Discussion about what happens in the future, to our way of thinking, doesn’t change what is owed or what has taken place already,” Dyster cautioned.
“The key for us is to resolve the dispute so we can get paid, but at the same time, if the Senecas continue to refuse to pay and the dispute isn’t resolved, it’s important that we move forward with other options.
“I don’t see how the Governor’s Office could not look at this.”
And a second casino is certainly an alternative, said State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane.
“I think the governor is as exhausted as everyone else is with the nonpayment by the Senecas, and I think he’s exploring all the options,” said Maziarz, who counts the Senecas among his major campaign contributors. “I think he’s doing the right thing.”
Spurback, who has criticized Cuomo in the past, also believes that the governor’s plan will ultimately help the city. But he believes that Cuomo’s motivations center on the state allowing “racinos” and other gambling devices, which drove the Senecas to withhold the money.
Spurback believes that it would benefit Cuomo to get the Senecas to agree to a settlement before the current arbitration ends because the state is the party that violated the deal.
“When arbitration ends … New York State will lose that,” Spurback said. What the governor is doing, he added, “is putting his cards on the table before arbitration to get the Senecas to the table.”
Another theory is that, despite the recent plans for a new casino and the apparent frustration at the pace of negotiations by the state, both sides are relatively close to an agreement.
Cuomo’s aggressive stance on the issue could actually compel hard-liners in the Seneca government to move closer to the moderates, who have been pushing for a deal.
A spokeswoman for Seneca President Barry E. Snyder Sr. declined to comment on the casino plan.
Spurback’s organization and other groups in the community proposed a similar non-Indian casino plan late last year. They sent copies of the proposal to Cuomo and a representative of Howard P. Milstein, the Manhattan billionaire who owns more than 140 acres of prime, undeveloped downtown land.
Building a new casino in the Falls could push Milstein to develop the blighted expanse that sits at the entrance to the city, which many say is the prime area for a new casino.
But it also would raise questions about Cuomo’s relationship with Milstein, a major campaign donor to Cuomo who he appointed in 2011 to lead the state Thruway Authority.