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A Washington-based consultant who has extensive experience in dealing with Native American tribes has been hired to help Buffalo in its quest to land a downtown casino.

The Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. voted Wednesday to pay attorney Dennis J. Whittlesey up to $10,000 to help the city negotiate a development agreement with the Seneca Nation. Mayor Masiello pushed for passage of the contract, calling it an important early step in efforts to lure a gaming establishment to the central business district.

"This is a very sophisticated and complex scenario. We need some guidance before we can reach a grand finale of having a casino in downtown Buffalo," he said.

BERC President Alan H. DeLisle noted that the Seneca Nation must still negotiate a compact with the state and obtain federal approval before it could even consider building a casino off reservation land. He said Whittlesey will help planners prepare for future negotiations. The consultant has previously represented municipalities -- including Detroit -- in casino-related talks with tribes.

"He also has a background in representing tribes. This will go a long way toward establishing a trust factor," DeLisle told the board.

The contract was approved with only one abstention; Clifford Bell argued that hiring a consultant at this juncture was premature and also questioned Whittlesey's $200-an-hour fee.

Whittlesey, who did casino-related consulting work for the city a few years ago, could not be reached to comment.

In other action Wednesday, the BERC announced that it is moving forward with plans to renovate vacant space in the city-owned Market Arcade complex in hopes of creating a high-tech business incubator for up to eight start-up businesses.

The $122,822 project will involve renovations to 8,300 square feet of space at 617 Main St. Until last year, the complex was set aside for the Breckenridge Brew Pub for possible expansion. The eatery went out of business earlier this month.

DeLisle said the "plug-and-go" suite will enable new high-tech businesses to lease affordable space that will accommodate all their needs.

The agency has been working closely with InfoTech Niagara, a group of area firms involved in information technology. Bell praised the concept of creating a high-tech incubator downtown, but he said he would feel more comfortable making the investment if there were already some tenants lined up for the new space. But DeLisle expressed confidence that there will be strong demand.

"We wouldn't have moved forward with this if we weren't convinced that there was a market," he said.

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