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Boardrooms provide heft to fight casino

They could not sit by. They could not do nothing while the community they care about took a huge hit.

Crusaders come in all kinds of clothing. These folks dress in suits and meet in wood-paneled boardrooms. You sometimes need them, the high-powered lawyers and the charitable foundation folks, as much as you need people in flannel shirts with picket signs and protest rallies.

You need the boardroom types when the battleground is a courtroom and only money buys you a seat. Enter a squadron of civic-minded lawyers, including heavy hitters Joe Finnerty, Dianne Bennett and Dick Lippes, working for free or at discount rates. Add the bucks from a charitable foundation, to cover most of a $1 million legal bill. Call it grass roots, in designer suits.

They recently won a big battle against a proposed Seneca Nation casino in Buffalo. A federal judge ordered the National Indian Gaming Commission to reconsider its 2002 ruling allowing a casino on land bought near the downtown waterfront.

A years-long grass-roots fight, led by Joel Rose, made all the right moves. But it lacked the scratch to take on the bottomless pockets of the U.S. Justice Department. "The key point," Finnerty said on a recent morning, "was when the Wendt committed [funding]."

In every way I can see, a Seneca casino in Buffalo does more harm than good. It would suck about $150 million a year out of mostly local pockets, giving us back a mere $7 million. Experts say the 1,500 new casino jobs come at the cost of at least as many existing ones, as folks spend money in the casino instead of local restaurants, stores and ballparks.

But in the years since Albany -- under the illusion of "economic development" -- signed its myopic casino pact with the Senecas, many believed that a Buffalo casino was a done deal. If not undone, it is now at least stamped with a large question mark.

It was waylaid because lawyers with a civic conscience did not want another UB-in-Amherst or Expressway-through-Humboldt type of blunder.

It was waylaid because a foundation decided to help Buffalo by preventing its harm. Tom Lunt had seen little community good from the Seneca casino in Niagara Falls. Fellow Wendt Foundation trustee Bob Kresse feared gambling's social ills. When trustee Janet Day agreed, Wendt was all in. "We had no idea," Lunt acknowledged, "how much money it [would] turn out to be."

Kresse's first lawyer recruit was Bennett, a retired partner at Hodgson Russ. A dozen more attorneys signed on. The harder they looked at the law, the more confident they became. One basic argument is that the city land the Senecas bought is not sovereign territory. Therefore, the Senecas cannot build a casino, since casinos are illegal on non-Indian territory in New York State.

It was a shot they felt they had to take, for the good of Buffalo. The lawyers and Wendt trustees all live here. Work here. Have families here.

We can't erase UB in Amherst and the way it fed sprawl and unmoored the city. We can't undo an expressway that severed a middle-class neighborhood. But a history of such blunders shows that stopping a bad idea is as vital as backing a good one.

A casino looms just as the sun breaks the horizon. Downtown is repopulating, the medical campus is coming alive, the waterfront is awakening, and we are ready to cash in on cultural tourism.

"We are seeing a fragile rebirth," Lippes said. "A casino will hurt that."

Imagine what this place could be in 20 years, if we make the right moves -- and avoid the wrong ones.

That is what this battle is about. It is not just a fight against a casino; it is a fight for Buffalo's future.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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