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Casino gambling supporters plan to be ready to move fast to boost downtown Buffalo's chances of snaring a high-stakes casino if the Seneca Nation of Indians approves casinos in an upcoming referendum.

Carl P. Paladino, downtown's largest private landlord and a board member of Buffalo Place Inc., is urging the group that runs the downtown pedestrian mall to try to actively promote a casino in the downtown core.

"There's a better-than-even chance that the Seneca Nation will pass gambling. We need to be able to hit the ground running and let people know that downtown is ready and willing," Paladino said.

Mayor Masiello, a long-time gambling advocate, is also asking downtown leaders to support efforts for high-stakes gambling. While Masiello has denied that any substantive discussions have ensued with leaders of the Seneca Nation, he said the city should be prepared to move expeditiously if new opportunities present themselves.

Masiello did confirm, however, that he met with top Seneca officials last month on the reservation. But he declined to comment further on the nature of their discussions.

Last week, Gov. Pataki said that he wants to let the public decide on legalizing casino gambling.

Masiello criticized state officials for "dropping the ball" last year by failing to take the initial steps needed to legalize gaming.

"We might get another bite of the apple, but we're going to need to get our message out there," Masiello said. "Otherwise, we're going to end up with all the negatives of gaming and Niagara Falls will end up with all the benefits."

Officials from Buffalo Place Inc., the not-for-profit group that manages the Main Street pedestrian mall, have agreed to make casino gaming a main focus of discussion at an upcoming strategy session in two weeks.

Still, some advocates think their best prospects would involve working with a Native American nation that holds tribal rights in the region. The Seneca Nation is expected to hold a referendum on the divisive gambling issue within the next month or so.

Meanwhile, the privately owned Niagara Falls Redevelopment Corp. is interested in building a $140 million casino in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Corporation officials have confirmed that they have been talking with Seneca Nation leaders about the prospects for more than two years.

Some downtown leaders think the time is right to push the issue on Buffalo's behalf, with the first step involving an endorsement from Buffalo Place.

But Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, an opponent of casino gambling, criticized the most recent strategy being advanced by some downtown planners.

While remaining opposed to any pro-gambling bills, Hoyt said advocates should try to advance their agenda within the framework of the state Legislature and a public referendum.

"If we're going to have casinos, the state should have full control of the operations. But I continue to maintain that the economic impact of casino
gambling would have far more negative than positive consequences," Hoyt said.

Paladino said if the referendum passes and the Senecas work out an agreement with officials in Niagara Falls, it shouldn't discourage Buffalo leaders from moving forward, arguing that both cities could accommodate high-stakes casinos.

He downplayed the possibility that he might be eyeing a casino for the Courtyard Mall on Main Street -- a complex that his corporation owns. Three years ago, there was speculation that Paladino's firm had been discussing the site with leaders of the Seneca Nation. "The Courtyard Mall is too small and would be virtually useless for this purpose. There are a number of possible downtown sites that could accommodate a casino," he said, adding that land in the Elm-Oak corridor could be ideal.

Under the state constitution, casinos are illegal except on Indian reservations. Gaming advocates want to see the Seneca Nation acquire land in either Niagara Falls or Buffalo -- or both, claiming that the nation holds tribal rights in the region. Officials said state and federal approval would be needed before a casino could be established.

Some business leaders are taking a cautious approach, including the president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the region's largest coalition of business owners.

Andrew J. Rudnick said if there is going to be gambling in Western New York, the community as a whole must decide where it makes the most sense to locate a casino. He said both downtown Buffalo and Niagara Falls could be realistic sites.

"If it happens, we have to work together as a community to make sure that the entire region can benefit from a single site. Gaming has to be viewed as part of a larger set of amenities that a community has to offer. Gaming all by itself is not the answer," Rudnick said.

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