It has taken years, but there is finally a new Native American casino in Buffalo.
First there was the issue of getting city approval, as officials from both camps tussled and the idea of setting up slots near the airport was bandied about.
Then there was the matter of the historic HO Oats grain elevator on the chosen site. Preservationists lobbied to have it somehow incorporated into the casino plans, but it was knocked into dust.
There followed lawsuits to stop the casino and a recession that hobbled its customer base, and for years the Seneca Nation’s Buffalo gambling interests were contained in a nondescript metal building that looked more like a maintenance shed than a Vegas-like venue, while behind it loomed a rusting metal framework of what might have been.
So it was almost a shock, or at least a surprise, when the new Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino opened its doors recently for a soft launch of its new, permanent, one-story facility. It took only 12 months to build it in the Old First Ward next to the Cobblestone District, behind the now-demolished blue building and in front of a new four-story parking garage.
A Seneca spokesman credits good weather and fast work by what he described as an excellent local workforce for the earlier than anticipated opening for the new casino.
“We’re calling it a transition,” said Jim Wise, senior vice president of marketing for Seneca Gaming. “We still have a few processes we have to do. People for the most part have been very understanding. They come in and they’re excited by how it looks – that ‘wow’ factor will help until we get everything going.”
That shouldn’t take long. The old casino is for the most part demolished. Most of its 450 slot machines have been moved to the permanent building, along with hundreds of new ones. Wise said Friday about 600 machines are now operating; the final number will be over 800, including multiple machines for the most popular games and a new “high-stakes” section for customers who want something other than the penny slots.
A grand opening is planned for Aug. 27, including fireworks at about 8:30 p.m. There will be a commemorative T-shirt giveaway the next morning.
Between now and then, the casino will be bringing more slot machines on line and adding 18 table games.
“Some of it is timing, and some of it is regulatory,” Wise said of the table game delay. “Our dealers have all been hired and have been training at the Seneca Niagara Casino.”
For now, visitors can peek behind thin blue curtains to see the new gambling tables, waiting for the first games of craps, roulette, Texas Hold ’em, poker and blackjack.
Meanwhile, in the week since the doors opened, crowds have been adjusting to the new venue and playing the slots. Even for regulars who were watching progress on the new building, it went quickly.
Last August, workers began dismantling the abandoned girders from the discarded original plans by the Senecas for a large hotel, casino and entertainment complex like the ones it operates in Niagara Falls and Salamanca. With a different economic climate and new development in the neighborhood, the project would go in another direction.
“It’s different from our other buildings,” Wise said. “There’s not a lot of open, public space. You come in right onto the casino floor.”
Wise said the hope is that people will indeed come from nearby – whether it’s before a hockey game, or after a concert at Canalside. When the first casino complex was proposed, Canalside didn’t exist, Bass Pro was still on the drawing table and the Marriott hotels now being constructed along Washington Street had not even been proposed.
“We want people to enjoy dinner and events downtown and then visit us,” Wise said. “It’s a nice amenity for this growing part of town.”
The Seneca Nation decided to forge ahead with the new building last year while it was still contending with a lawsuit filed by Citizens Against Casino Gambling in Erie County seeking to block any gambling operations in the city. This spring, as work continued, Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny rejected the citizen group’s argument that the downtown casino is illegal and dismissed the case. The group has indicated it will appeal the decision.
The $130 million casino is employing about 500 people, up from about 100 in the old building.
With the recent resolution of the dispute between the Seneca Nation and New York State, the City of Buffalo has budgeted for $14 million in slot-machine revenue from the casino over three years, beginning in 2014-15.
Meanwhile, inside the new Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino, curious crowds are sometimes causing waits to use favorite slot machines. The small BC Cafe is open, as is the Stixx Sports Bar, which rises in the center of the room. Buffalo Savors, a small restaurant serving a Buffalo-themed menu (items from Charlie the Butcher, Chrusciki Bakery and so on), is expected to open Friday.