The Fort Erie Race Track's planned rebirth took a giant step forward Thursday when track and government officials opened the doors of the long-awaited slot-machine casino.
The 1,200-machine facility is hoped to bring financial salvation to the 102-year-old thoroughbred facility.
"We expect (the gross revenue at) this one could be a couple million a week," Ron D. Barbaro, chairman and chief executive of the Ontario Lottery Corp., predicted a few minutes after he cut the ribbon to open the 75,000 square-foot casino for an invitation-only preview by about 2,000 people.
Barring unforeseen problems, the casino -- located in the former first floor of the grandstand -- will open to the public at 11 a.m. on Saturday.
"I think it's gorgeous. I think it's absolutely gorgeous. . . . I'm really impressed," said Buffalo resident Michael Marchioli, while playing a 25-cent slot machine.
Marchioli, who said he also plays at casinos in Nevada, Ontario, Connecticut and New Jersey, termed New York State "way behind" its neighbors in tapping the gambling market.
He said he thinks leaders in New York's State Legislature "have been bought out by Donald Trump," the Atlantic City, N.J., casino magnate, to keep casinos out of the Empire State. "I think this (casino) will create more interest and more enthusiasm for Buffalo to start it (casino gambling)," he said. "Look at all these people that came here. Why can't Buffalo do it?"
"I think that it's great," said John Young, a Fort Erie native who won $800 on a "Blazing 7s" machine.
"I think it's great that they've done something with it that will revitalize it. Not just so much for the town, but for the track itself. We were about to lose it. And I think this will bring it back bigger and better than ever," Young said.
Barbaro, a former Prudential Insurance executive who said he "flunked retirement," heads the Ontario agency which runs the province's legalized gambling activities. His purview includes Casino Niagara in Niagara Falls and slot-machine-only casinos at four racetracks, so far.
Fort Erie is the fourth track to adds slots and, according to Barbaro, things couldn't be going much better.
"There isn't one of them that isn't doing over one and a quarter million (Canadian dollars) a week in gross revenue," Barbaro said.
Barbaro said he expects at least half the slot revenues to come from gamblers on the United States side of the Peace Bridge.
"This is very attractive to Americans," he said. "They get 50 percent more playing time on a machine with their dollar."
Asked if he feared the new facility would spur New York State to legalize casino gambling, Barbaro said "I hope not. . . . We respect competition, but we don't fear it."
The new casino will improve the economies of both sides of the Niagara River, said Tim Hudak, Niagara South member of Parliament.
"I think the more commerce there is between Buffalo, Western New York and Fort Erie-Niagara, the stronger our ties become and the more we work together.
"I see this as an attractive region, Western New York Niagara, more so than competing within a region. It will bring more people from the outside into the region. . . . the more attractions we have here in general, the more tourists, and the better it is for both sides," Hudak said.
Money from the casino will allow the track to add to its 100-date schedule next year and will increase purse money from the current $75,000 a day, according to Eddie Lynn, general manager for track owner Nordic Gaming Corp. (The track and the horsemen's purse account split 20 percent of the gross revenues.)