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MANY IN FALLS EMBRACE A CHANCE FOR PROSPERITY

Standing outside St. Mary's of the Cataract Catholic Church, the Rev. Mike Burzynski surveys the surrounding area.

His church, at Fourth Street and Duggan Drive, is next-door to the Niagara Falls Convention and Civic Center -- the proposed future site of a casino run by the Seneca Nation of Indians.

Burzynski's reaction to the idea of the invasion of casino gambling on his parish neighborhood is not the predictable one. Living in Niagara Falls, and watching it struggle in the shadow of Ontario's economic boom, this priest is a realist.

"The more people that come downtown, the better it would be," Burzynski said. "It might be all for the best."

Burzynski, like business owners and residents in the blighted downtown area, seemed to be in a rather gleeful state of shock in the wake of Gov. George E. Pataki's announcement Wednesday that he had reached a compact with the Senecas to operate casinos in the Falls and Buffalo. Burzynski said he's even willing to trade his weekly bingo game for slot machines and roulette tables.

"If you have a parish ministry, you take care of the needs of the community and the parish," he said. "Our mission is to serve the community. If it's going to be a different community, we'll have to adapt."

City Council Chairman Anthony F. Quaranto, meanwhile, has called a special City Council meeting for 4 p.m. Monday to get information about the casino proposal.

Noting that the Council was not invited to the formal announcement at Prospect Point, he said he is being questioned by constituents who think he is withholding information or operating in secret.

"We need some things answered for us. We're not aware of what's going on because we weren't invited. So we've got some questions we want to ask them. We want a rundown on what they're talking about. The only thing we know is what we're reading in the paper," he said.

There is an empty lot across the street from St. Mary's, where St. Mary's Catholic School once stood before the city bought the land with development dreams. Two franchise hotels, the Holiday Inn Select and the Ramada Inn, the latter of which seems to be crying for a good paint job, face each other across Fourth Street, vying to fill their rooms.

And then behind the church, there's the biggest eyesore of them all -- the former
Niagara Splash water park, long an ugly, sad symbol of a lack of progress in the city.

On the other side of the convention center sits a strip of locally owned bars and restaurants, interrupted only by a Wilson Farms.

George's Restaurant at 420 Niagara St. keeps its door open, welcoming customers to come off the streets and enjoy a meal.

Its owner, George Wenz, sits at one of the tables reminiscing about his early years in the city.

Wenz, a New York City native, brought his wife to Niagara Falls in 1961 for their honeymoon and decided to stay. Attracted by the bustling city atmosphere, Wenz said he thought Niagara Falls would be a nice place to raise a family.

Then out went the stores, followed by the movie houses, bowling alleys, restaurants, jobs and his children. Unable to get jobs in the area, his sons moved out of state.

"It was great here, but things changed," Wenz said. "Unfortunately, they changed for the worse."

Wenz predicts that a new casino will help stimulate the city's economy and create and retain jobs for future generations. He has but one disappointment.

"I just wish the state had done this sooner," he said. "Now that I'm ready to turn everything in, this comes along."

At the mere mention of a casino, a smile comes to Chris Shiah's face as he envisions the number of Las Vegas-style weddings. Shiah opened the city's first wedding chapel nine years ago and considers a casino to be "a perfect marriage" with his business.

"It's a business marriage for me," Shiah said. "That's absolutely fabulous."

Thursday afternoon, union leaders gathered in E. Dent Lackey Plaza to laud the governor's actions.

Frank V. Roma, chairman of the Niagara Falls Coalition for Casino Gambling, said he is confident the State Legislature will approve the casino proposal by next week.

"We've worked on this for years, and we're not giving up now," Roma said.

The governor's announcement, however, came a few decades too late for some local business owners, including Virginia Celenza, who owns the Holley Rankine House, a bed-and-breakfast overlooking the Niagara River.

Celenza said she does not believe that the casino project will ever come through, based on past letdowns in the city of Niagara Falls. She added that she withdrew her business from the Convention and Visitors Bureau because the organization catered mostly to large businesses.

"I don't believe it," she said. "They're too small-minded in Niagara Falls. I feel sorry for this city.

"I've heard so many people talk, I don't believe it anymore."

Back at St. Mary's Church, Burzynski is more upbeat.

St. Mary's consists of about 750 parish families, but during the summer tourist season, that number leaps into the thousands. Summer Masses are already standing-room-only, and it's not uncommon to find gambling chips in the collection basket from casino-happy visitors.

Burzynski said the church has always been willing to reach out to tourists in the past and will continue to do so, even if those visitors happen to be gambling. The church may even offer gambling counseling and awareness programs once the casino is under way.

"This will extend the tourist season," he said. "We're able to touch a lot of people that way."

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