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Fort Erie is not quite near enough to Buffalo to hear the ka-ching of those 1,200 new slot machines at the Fort Erie Race Track, but there is another sound caused by the Niagara Frontier's newest gambling palace.

"I just hear a big sucking sound in Western New York with all our money going over the Peace Bridge," said Jerry Schweibel, general manager of Buffalo Raceway in Hamburg.

Schweibel is not alone in his thinking, and it's not just money that might have been spent at his racetrack.

Hunter Interests, a consultant hired by the city to study the economic impact of gambling in Buffalo, estimated last year that slots at Fort Erie could generate $200 million (American) in revenue annually. More conservative estimates peg the figure at $130 million.

"Where does that money come from?" asked Mayor Masiello, who favors casino gambling in the city. "It comes from Buffalo, Western New York and the Niagara Frontier."

Estimates of the American take at Casino Niagara range anywhere from 50 to 80 percent, and those who pushed for slot machines at the Fort Erie track planned on a good share of their customers crossing the border.

"This highlights and shows the great demand for gaming," Masiello said of the new slots. "It's a lot of our money to support the Canadian government. We get all the problems and none of the benefits."

Slots at the Fort Erie track, announced now in giant billboards along major expressways in Buffalo as well as the Queen Elizabeth Way in Canada, almost sneaked up on people compared with the opening of Casino Niagara in Niagara Falls, Ont.

While the Canadian government dithered and changed directions several times on racetrack slot machines -- the slots were originally to be video display terminals -- Casino Niagara opened to great fanfare in 1996. Even greater hoopla came when a second, larger casino was proposed.

Casino Niagara attracted 10.2 million patrons last year who spent $650.8 million (Canadian), according to the Ontario Casino Corp., the government agency that oversees Canada's casinos.

Casino Niagara has table games, craps and more than twice as many slot machines as Fort Erie -- 2,772 to 1,200 -- but there is no mistaking the fact that the Fort Erie track is now a minicasino as well as a place to watch and bet on horse races.

"We have to stop kidding ourselves," said Alan H. DeLisle, president of Buffalo's Economic Renaissance Corp., the city's main development agency and the leader of the city's efforts to prepare for a possible casino. "Instead of 20 minutes away, it will now be 10 minutes. It ain't going to get any closer unless it's in the city."

The possibility of casino gambling in the city remains as unclear now as when Casino Niagara opened three years ago.

The State Legislature shows no inclination to restart the constitutional process that would lead to state authorized casino gambling, and nobody is quite clear on what the Seneca Nation of Indians plans for Native American gambling.

The Senecas are split themselves on whether to open high-stakes bingo halls with video slots near their reservations or explore the possibility of opening casinos in Niagara Falls, N.Y. and Buffalo.

"I couldn't tell you," Masiello said Thursday when asked if he knew what the Senecas planned.

To prepare for the possibility of a casino, Masiello convened a gaming task force last year that met monthly and prepared a plan that he believes will have Buffalo as ready as possible should casino gambling come to the city.

Masiello has said gambling would immediately attract the critical mass of people necessary for downtown's revival to continue.

But the slots at Fort Erie, both Masiello and DeLisle said, throw a wrench into their carefully planned machinery. The city and Western New York will inherit the problems of the slot machines, they said, without getting the revenue.

The caseload of problem gamblers served by Jewish Family Service of Buffalo & Erie County has doubled since Casino Niagara opened, said Marlene Schillinger, executive director of the agency.

She also said Erie County accounted for the largest percentage of the 4,000 calls last year received by the 24-hour hot line of the State Council on Problem Gambling, and the county had the largest percentage of crisis calls.

When Americans seek help with gambling at Casino Niagara, they are given the state's hot line number to call. Canada does not contribute any funds to New York's gambling treatment programs.

While her agency treats gambling and takes no stand on whether it should be allowed, Ms. Schillinger said there is no doubt that Fort Erie's new slots will send more clients to her staff. She has only two counselors for 87 active clients, half of whom have problems with casino gaming.

"The more opportunity people have to gamble, the more they are going to gamble," she said when asked about the effect of the slot machines at Fort Erie. "The closer the opportunity, the more they will gamble."

Slot machines, she said, are a particularly seductive form of gaming for problem gamblers. "I don't know who coined the term 'the crack cocaine of gambling,' " she said of slots, "but it's accurate."

Schweibel, the general manager at Buffalo Raceway, has mixed feelings about slots at racetracks.

Active in horse racing all his life, he has seen television, professional sports, Off-Track Betting and other forms of gambling and leisure activity erode the market for live horse racing.

Schweibel has unsuccessfully lobbied state legislators along with other racetracks for slot machines, citing successes in other states where racetracks have been saved from closing by the machines.

But if racetracks continue to be successful because of slot machines, he said, how long before someone realizes that maybe the racetracks aren't necessary?

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