The sudden talk of building a second casino in Niagara Falls has created a buzz around the city, but a key point is being overlooked: What’s in it for the Falls?
In truth, the question is probably premature, because no one knows if Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is serious about building a non-Indian casino in the city, though there is reason to believe it’s more than just talk.
Cuomo dropped this bombshell last weekend, and the consensus seems to be that it is leverage in the state’s dispute with the Seneca Nation of Indians, which has stopped making payments to the state from its casinos in Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Salamanca. The Senecas contend, not preposterously, that the state has violated the zone of exclusivity granted in the casino compact by allowing gambling at race tracks in Hamburg, Batavia and Farmington.
As a consequence, the Senecas have withheld payments due to the state and to the cities where the casinos are operating. Niagara Falls has lost $60 million to that dispute, in which it plays no role but victim.
Enter Cuomo with a plan to shake up the dynamic. By proposing a competing casino, according to one theory, he pressures the Senecas to settle the matter, which is now in arbitration.
If the Senecas don’t settle or if the state loses the arbitration, it has an option to recoup at least some of the money it is now forgoing, and perhaps more, from a new casino.
But what of Niagara Falls? While the proposal is only in a gestational stage, it’s worth making sure that Cuomo and other state officials understand that, if this plan goes forward, Niagara Falls needs a greater share of proceeds than it was to get under the arrangement with the Senecas. The city bears the costs of police and fire protection, street maintenance and more. This deal needs to pay.
There is some reason to be doubtful of the viability of this plan. Across the river in Niagara Falls, Ont., gambling revenues are waning. A Canadian report last year suggested reducing or relocating casinos in shrinking markets, such as Niagara Falls. And over the past decade, profits from Canadian gambling facilities close to the U.S. border have dropped from $800 million to $100 million. That’s hardly an enticement to build.
The state’s move toward more casino gambling is a recognition of the reality that people are going to gamble and that if New York doesn’t provide an outlet gamblers will patronize the many casinos nearby. It may be inevitable, but it is a clear sign that the state cannot see any other way to meet its expenses but to draw New Yorkers and visitors into gambling halls. A casino made at least some sense in Niagara Falls given that it is a tourist city and its sister across the river already had them.
All in all, another casino could be a net gain for Niagara Falls, as long as the city gets its fair share of the revenues. But it would be better for the state and the Senecas just to settle their differences.