A small majority of Buffalo's voters support a new downtown casino even though an overwhelming number feel left out of the decision-making, according to a Buffalo News poll.
The survey of 400 voters also found sharp disagreement over the casino's social and economic impact.
About 55 percent of those surveyed by The News said the casino will be good for the city. About 45 percent called it a bad idea.
The survey, conducted by Cornerstone Research & Marketing of North Tonawanda, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, so the casino's approval rating could be as high as 59 percent or as low as 51 percent.
"In reality, probably half of the voters in Buffalo want the casino," said Cornerstone President Rhonda Ried. "People are basically split, but a little more to the positive."
Yet the poll, conducted over a four-day period last week, found widespread dis
content over the public's input into the casino decisions.
Of those surveyed, about 72 percent said city residents have not had an adequate voice in deciding whether to build a casino in Buffalo. About 28 percent said the public did have enough input.
"We've gotten snowballed," said Matthew Lachiusa, 35, of Allentown. "Our leaders have just brought this to us without any democratic process. I think it's a terrible idea for our community."
Voters also split over the benefits and pitfalls of a casino. About 59 percent said the casino would help Buffalo's economy, but only 43 percent said it would boost the city's quality of life.
In contrast, 45 percent said the casino would hurt Buffalo's quality of life, while 33 percent said it would hurt the city economically.
"We need more money, more revenue," said Gloria Perkins, 60, who lives near Erie County Medical Center. "But primarily, it's the jobs we need. It has to help with our unemployment."
>Lowdown on the land
The News also asked voters about the Senecas' land acquisition -- the Nation recently bought nine acres in Buffalo's Cobblestone District -- and the possibility they could eventually buy a large amount of real estate downtown.
The survey found 42 percent of voters opposed to that possibility, while 37 percent think the Senecas' acquisition of a large tract of land would be good for Buffalo.
The results follow a News story about the Senecas' land purchase practices. In both Buffalo and Niagara Falls, the tribe's gambling corporation bought land for millions of dollars and then sold it to the tribe for as little as $4.
The Senecas maintain the practice is legal but so far have refused to explain their strategy. The intention could be to extend the life and value of their $30 million fund for land acquisition.
Seneca Nation President Barry E. Snyder Sr., in a news release last week, tried to clarify the tribe's plans for its Buffalo casino.
"The nation has acquired all of the land necessary to build its Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino and fulfill our compact obligations," Snyder said.
The News' survey is the latest in a series of polls that have tracked public opinion of casino gambling.
On the ultimate question -- do people want a casino in downtown Buffalo? -- the latest poll found a 55 percent approval rating for the casino, which is similar to the results of the last News poll in 2004.
That poll found 64 percent of city voters favored a casino in Erie County but only 53 percent wanted it downtown.
A similar survey in 2002 found only 40 percent of city voters wanted a casino.
Critics claim the casino's approval ratings are higher than expected because of the high-priced public relations campaign the Senecas orchestrated.
"The casino has been portrayed as helping the community," said Buffalo attorney Robert Kresse, one of the forces behind a lawsuit opposing the casino. "The Senecas have spent millions to promote the casino and its promise of jobs and opportunity."
Kresse thinks the public, once it's informed of the casino's social and economic pitfalls, will realize the project is bad for Buffalo.
Casino supporters, meanwhile, feel buoyed by the poll results showing majority support for the casino and its economic impact.
"That casino is going to bring jobs, commerce and money into the city," said downtown developer Carl P. Paladino, part of a group of investors who sold the Seneca's gambling corporation more than half of its Buffalo property.
While support for the casino has ebbed and flowed over the years, there is no question a large majority of voters feel disenfranchised.
The latest News survey found seven out of 10 voters think the public was denied an adequate voice in deciding whether to build a casino. That compares with six out of 10 voters in the 2004 survey.
On the question of benefits, both economic and social, voters split.
Nearly six out of every 10 voters think the casino will help Buffalo's economy, but some of those same voters think it will subtract from its quality of life.
"It's a bad idea," said Charles Banks, 62, a Fruit Belt resident. "There's no reason for it. All the money will go to the Senecas, not anyone else."
Unlike Banks, Ralph Powers Sr. sees the casino as a much needed lift for downtown's Cobblestone district, the area near HSBC Arena.
Powers, a 68-year-old resident of the Old First Ward, said the casino may cause some quality of life problems but the positives -- jobs, visitors and increased property values -- far outweigh the negatives.
"Now, there's finally something happening down there," Powers said of the Cobblestone area. "I think the casino will bring people downtown. I also think it will bring value, and anything that brings value to the city is a good idea."
For others, the casino represents a mixed bag.
>Breaking it down
John LaBelle, 59, of South Buffalo, isn't opposed to a casino downtown but he is skeptical of the promises that come with it.
"Economically, it doesn't make a lot of sense," LaBelle said. "It doesn't really add to the growth of our city."
The survey, when broken down by age, race and gender, found men to be more pro-casino than women. It also found strong support for the casino among African-Americans and young people.
"I think a lot of it is the job potential," said Reid, president of Cornerstone, "and the feeling that the casino will give people something to do."
The Senecas, who have until December 2007 to open the new casino, have asked their architects to draw up plans for a 100,000-square-foot casino with room for 2,200 slot machines, 50 gambling tables, a fine-dining restaurant, buffet, a retail shop and a 2,500-car parking ramp.
The plans also allow for a future 250-room hotel with meeting rooms and banquet halls.
Seneca officials declined to comment on the poll results.