The Senecas on Tuesday unveiled a $26 million renovation plan for Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel, one that will put a fresh face on the flagship gambling property in Western New York.
It’s also the latest evidence that conflicts between the State of New York and the Seneca Nation of Indians seem to be easing.
About $140 million in casino slot machine revenue is now set to flow to the communities that host the three gambling facilities following last month’s agreement between the state and the Senecas to resolve a years-long dispute over the Seneca Nation’s gambling rights.
Last week, Seneca Nation and Seneca Gaming Corp. officials showcased ongoing construction work at Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino in Buffalo.
And over the weekend, the Senecas ran a full-page ad in The Buffalo News, calling the agreement with the state a “true win-win.”
Do these recent developments represent a renewal of good feelings? Or do Seneca officials see them more as a chance to get past the rhetoric of the dispute with the state and focus on business?
“What we just have is a plan that we continue to move forward on,” said Cathy Walker, president and CEO of Seneca Gaming.
The work is simply a sign of the Seneca Nation’s commitment to the region, demonstrated by its willingness to invest in capital projects, Walker said.
The nation has always wanted to be a leading economic developer in the region, according to Walker.
“There’s a lot going on in this region, and we’re so glad to be a part of it,” Walker said.
But with all the excitement over last month’s deal, there’s another side to casinos that critics don’t want ignored.
It’s a side that former Rep. John J. LaFalce, who has been a part of lawsuits against casinos here, believes is harmful to society.
All gambling, not just Indian casinos but also “government-sponsored gambling,” is widespread – in restaurants, Off-Track Betting parlors, and has “become a way of life,” LaFalce said.
“Gambling preys upon the poorest, upon the most disadvantaged and it will continue to do so,” he said.
While there are pluses and minuses to casinos, LaFalce said he believes the negatives outweigh the positives.
“I think that’s the experience in almost any city across America where you’ve seen casino gambling,” he said, “that the prime beneficiaries are the casinos themselves, the employees of the casino, to the detriment of the rest of the community.”
Critics often have pointed out the lack of development around the Falls casino, which had been billed, when it was first proposed, as a catalyst for growth in a city that desperately needed it.
Although the $26 million refurbishment of the casino’s 88,000-square-foot main gaming floor was announced Tuesday, it has been in development for some time, officials said.
The work will include a $6 million HVAC system and a new bar and entertainment stage that will have a 40-by-20-foot high-definition video wall.
Cosmetic improvements include new carpet and chairs, as well as an expanded west entrance. A new promotions booth and a new Keno bar at the entrance to recently renovated Thunder Falls Buffet are also planned.
The Club 101 bar area, located at the center of the gaming floor, is being removed.
“We plan to give our guests an entirely new experience, from the look, sounds and the feel of the gaming floor to the air they breathe,” Seneca President Barry E. Snyder Sr. told those gathered for the morning news conference in the casino’s Chairman’s Club. “Let me assure you, by making these renovations we are transforming the heart of this world-class property.”
SOSH Architects completed the design work, while the construction work will be done by Seneca Construction Management Corp. and local contractors.
Casino officials said the project will create 300 construction jobs, with as many as 120 construction workers on site at peak times. Seneca officials said they expect most of the renovations to wrap up by the end of the year.
A separate $2.9 million project to improve Seneca Square, the outdoor area between the casino and Third Street, will include improvements to the pedestrian bridge and Seneca-themed landscaping.
On June 13, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Snyder came to the Falls to announce a settlement of a four-year dispute during which the Senecas withheld payments to the state because they believed the state violated its gambling exclusivity deal for Western New York.
The Niagara Falls casino includes 147,000 square feet of gaming, 10 restaurants and the 26-floor, 604-room Seneca Niagara Hotel.
A soft opening of the expanded Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino in Buffalo is expected toward the end of the summer.