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DESPITE RISKS, CASINO MAY BE NECESSARY EVIL

Officials pushing the Buffalo casino are certainly saying all the right things. They're emphasizing that gaming is no panacea, just part of a much larger plan for a city with a dream but few dollars. They're making the risk sound minimal.

In fact, they sound just like casino barkers.

Yet -- if the requisite approvals come through -- the city will probably have no choice but to build one. Call it the anabolic argument.

Casinos have become for cities what anabolic steroids are for athletes. Players recognize the harm, but as long as the competition is taking them, they must, too.

For struggling cities such as Buffalo and Niagara Falls, it's probably the best argument you can make for levying a noncompulsory tax on the poor and inviting all the pathologies that will follow.

We "need" a gaming hall because, with Casino Niagara and Fort Erie Race Track's slot machines within easy driving distance, we're already subject to all of the problems but none of the benefits.

Of course, not everyone buys the notion of building casinos in self-defense.

"That, to me, is kind of sick," said David Robertson, board member and former chairman of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling.

Robertson says Iowa -- which was surrounded by casinos in Missouri, Minnesota and Illinois -- nevertheless found that the rate of gambling addiction increased after its own casino opened.

"Making a casino more accessible is simply going to increase the addiction rate and increase the problems," he said.

The industry, naturally, disputes that. American Gaming Association data shows that casino players have higher household incomes -- $45,667 versus the U.S. median of $40,816 -- and that a greater proportion attended college. In other words, the industry argues, casinos don't prey on the poor and uneducated.

Those numbers seem somewhat reassuring. However, the association doesn't have a breakdown on those who primarily plunk money into slot machines, as opposed to patronizing table games. Critics say the slots -- which would be a big part of the Seneca Nation of Indians casinos here -- draw a poorer, less-educated clientele.

An industry spokeswoman scoffs. But it doesn't take a study to realize that the lowbrow appeal of slots can suck in those who can gamble away the rent money a few dollars at a time -- and who can least afford to do it. There's probably a good reason the industry hasn't done a separate study on that.

Still, in a review for the federally created National Gambling Impact Study Commission three years ago, Adam Rose and Associates found that gambling tax revenues generally more than pay for the cost of extra police, new roads, etc.

After reviewing 36 major studies, Rose concluded that, on balance, "a new casino, of even limited attractiveness and placed in a market that is not already saturated, will yield positive economic benefits on net."

But that raises as many questions as it answers for this region. With Canada's Casino Niagara going strong and a bigger version opening in 2003, plus a new casino on this side in Niagara Falls and possibly a third on Indian land, that question of "saturation" has to hang over the heads of Buffalo officials, who don't have a waterfall or a favorable exchange rate to lure outsiders.

So does the paltry 3 percent cut the cities would get, and the fact that Rose's analysis didn't include "social costs" for things like treating gambling addiction, broken homes or bankruptcies. University of Illinois professor John Warren Kindt has concluded that taxpayers spend about $3 overall for every $1 in tax revenue they get from casinos, when all those costs are totaled.

And even Rose agrees that, while casinos have a good record of hiring women and minorities -- many off welfare -- the jobs are relatively low-paying.

Then there's the morality of preying on the hopeless and undermining the ethic of working for what you want -- an ethic already on life support among some segments of society.

Put it all together, and the fact that Buffalo may finally get to open a gambling hall sounds more like a cause for concern than confetti -- except for one thing.

After all the caveats and warnings, there's still that steroid-enhanced little block on the hill across the river.

So maybe the most we can do here is make an investment and hope for the best -- like what happens when you walk into a casino.

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