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Surprise: Casino's open Senecas' victory called temporary by opponents who plan to keep fighting in federal court

As electronic slot machines whirred and pinged for the first time Tuesday in the temporary Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino, lawyers for both sides got ready for the next round in federal court to decide the casino's future.

Seneca Gaming Corp. held a surprise opening of its new casino at 8 a.m. Tuesday, working through the night to install 124 slot machines once the National Indian Gaming Commission ruled in the Senecas' favor.

Casino opponents called it only a procedural victory and predicted they eventually will win on grounds that the Senecas have no legal right to open an off-reservation casino in Buffalo.

"We have a message to the Senecas as they host and gamble away in their temporary makeshift casino," said Joseph M. Finnerty, an attorney representing casino opponents. "And the message is simply this: Don't get comfortable."

Just a few hours after the casino opened with no publicity in a modest blue-metal building in the city's Cobblestone District, gamblers nearly filled its 200-car parking lot.

"This is a wonderful thing to happen to our city and the [Old First Ward]," said Ann Calabotta of Buffalo, one of the first casino patrons through the door. "Now we won't have to drive all the way out to the 'rez.' "

"You would have thought they'd have big banners and lots of advertising," said Joe Packer, a nearby resident who was among the first to get inside and hit the slot machines. "I found out by word-of-mouth, and here I am."

The opening caught casino opponents by surprise, with even the judge in the case hearing about it first from The Buffalo News' Web site.

"We're looking at the future now," said Barry E. Snyder Sr., chairman of Seneca Gaming Corp. "We're done with all the rigamarole. When we're done, we will have invested over $100 million in this neighborhood, and it will be something Buffalo can be proud of."

The Senecas have so far spent $9 million to buy the land, and $6.8 million for the temporary casino, its slot machines and furnishings.

Tiny by any casino standards, the temporary Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino has room for 124 slot machines and a snack bar, but little else.

The Senecas plan a $125 million casino and entertainment complex, totaling more than 200,000 square feet and expected to employ more than 1,000 workers. The Senecas already have casinos in Niagara Falls and Salamanca.

Buffalo Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson said his department will provide security for the casino, having won the bid over the New York State Police and the Erie County Sheriff's Office.

Details still must be worked out between Seneca Gaming and the city, he added. But Buffalo's top law enforcer assured residents that the Police Department's expanded duties will not dilute public safety in other parts of the city.

Gipson said that there will be one plainclothes officer inside the temporary casino at all times. The detail for the casino, he said, will require the use of four officers.

The money generated by the agreement will enable the city to hire four additional officers. Until the hirings occur, he said, police will work the casino detail on overtime, with Seneca Gaming picking up the costs.

When a larger, permanent casino is built, the commissioner said, the agreement will likely have to be amended to deal with additional security needs.

The temporary casino opening was set in motion by Philip N. Hogan, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, which regulates all Native American casinos.

Hogan notified the Senecas he had determined that their new land in Buffalo meets the exceptions required after 1988 for new off-reservation Indian casinos.

Hogan said a new gambling ordinance, passed June 9 by the Seneca Tribal Council, defines the nine acres for the first time. It states that the Senecas bought the land as part of the Seneca Nation Land Claims Settlement Act, the congressional act that settled long-term leases in Salamanca, he said.

Because it was part of a land settlement, Hogan said, it meets one of the exceptions for off-reservation casinos.

Opponents, including former Rep. John J. LaFalce, who co-wrote the Settlement Act, said the law pertained to paying the Senecas for leases only and was never intended to be used to buy land for gambling.

Hogan also said his new look at the casino lands, ordered by U.S. District Court Judge William M. Skretny in January, made the issues in the federal court case moot. His letter gave the Senecas tacit approval to proceed without the U.S. Justice Department going back to court.

The Senecas are not part of the lawsuit, with opponents suing both the U.S. secretary of the Interior and the National Indian Gaming Commission. The Senecas have friend-of-the-court status in the case.

The Justice Department later Tuesday notified Skretny's court of the gaming commission ruling but said it was outside the court's scope. Government lawyers made no mention of the casino's opening, which Skretny had barred until the gaming commission ruled.

Finnerty said the casino opponents he represents, a group that includes local residents, clergy and elected officials, are warning the Senecas that the fight is not over.

"The decision today is just as wrong as it was then," Finnerty said of Hogan's ruling, which confirmed an earlier decision to allow the Senecas' off-reservation casinos by Gale A. Norton, Interior secretary at the time.

The Senecas expect their opponents to return to court, with Barry Brandon, counsel for Seneca Gaming, predicting "they will race to the courthouse in an attempt to shut us down."

Brandon also said it will be difficult for casino opponents to shut down their operation now that it is bringing in customers.

Finnerty disagreed.

"The fact that they opened has nothing to do with whether they will be able to remain open," he said.

Bert Hyde, who arrived at the casino with Calabotta and Kate Zawistowski, said he has been driving by the Michigan Avenue site for months, waiting for something to happen.

"This place is going to bring people down here," he said, "and when they build the big casino, this will put Buffalo back on the map."

News Staff Reporter Brian Meyer contributed to this report.



>Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino

A look at the temporary casino that opened Tuesday:

* Located at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Perry Street in Buffalo's Cobblestone District.

* Contains 124 slot machines, snack bar, on-site parking for 200 vehicles, room for 317 patrons.

* Open daily 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.

* Employs 50 people.

* Operated by Seneca Gaming Corp.

* Sister facilities are Seneca Niagara Casino and Hotel in Niagara Falls, and the Seneca Salamanca Casino and Resort in Salamanca.

Source: Seneca Gaming Corp.

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