The Seneca Nation of Indians at one time planned to build a gambling palace in Buffalo. By comparison, its newest design is more like a gambling cabin. One-fifth the previously envisioned size, with no hotel and fewer restaurants, it more reasonably reflects today's economic realities.
Whatever the scale, however, the new Buffalo Creek Casino is no less a risk for the Senecas because it is going up on a base of legal quicksand.
Casino opponents are in federal court challenging the federal government review that allowed an Indian-run casino in Buffalo, and the opponents believe they will prevail. "Clearly, the Senecas are taking quite a chance," said Diane Bennett, president of a casino-opposition group called Citizens for a Better Buffalo.
Buffalo Creek poses a risk for all of Buffalo as well. Institutionalized gambling plagues societies by draining money from the poorest among us, who come to think that a stroke of luck will make them rich. This page accepted the placement of a Seneca-run casino in Niagara Falls because no one can dispute that Niagara Falls is a destination, where tourists from everywhere seek entertainment after viewing the natural wonder there. If the tourists didn't find their entertainment on the New York side, they could easily head to Ontario's busy machines.
But downtown Buffalo? It's not the same sort of destination as Niagara Falls, and a casino that draws primarily local traffic will create primarily local problems. The business model of a casino, after all, calls for taking in much more than it pays out. The smaller Buffalo Creek Casino lacks the glitzy trappings that might have attracted out-of-towners who might then go looking for the other amenities that the city offers. While a new casino will create some local jobs, for the most part the dollars spent to create those jobs are dollars that won't be spent at the region's other bars, restaurants and entertainment venues.
The Senecas have otherwise been good neighbors. They have established a $1 million fund to help beautify the area around the Buffalo Creek Casino on Michigan Avenue near Perry Street. They have diversified their business interests through their investment arm, Seneca Holdings, and their contributions to the local economy are, for the most part, welcome. Further, we believe Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter when he says he believes in productive collaboration and solving problems through dialogue. "It's very draining and expensive to be in constant conflict with people, especially your neighbors," he said recently.
To the extent that the new Buffalo Creek Casino will bring in shops and restaurants and stimulate private development, as well as instill more vibrancy to the waterfront and undo that forlorn steel skeleton left from the previous casino plan, the Senecas' plans are encouraging.
But the addition of even more gambling in downtown Buffalo?
That's a risk not worth taking.