There were a few surprises Friday for the more than 100 people who turned out to learn more about the pros and cons of opening an Indian casino in Buffalo.
The biggest surprise was hearing an internationally recognized casino expert go so far as to say "in many ways, you have a leg up on Vegas."
William N. Thompson -- a professor at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas -- was optimistic that if Buffalo does the right things, "you can make it work and one casino can be a catalyst for other economic development in the downtown . . . If you wind up having traffic jams in downtown Buffalo, you will enjoy having traffic jams."
Thompson also said that if Buffalo "can retrieve 25 percent of the money going to Niagara Falls (Canada), you are in the ballgame to make (a casino) work."
What does Buffalo have that Las Vegas doesn't? In a forum at the Hyatt Regency, Thompson cited:
Two professional sports teams "while Las Vegas has been begging for even one for the last several years."
A nearby airport.
"It took us 50 years to get a nearby airport," he said.
An art museum.
Places to walk to, like the waterfront.
"We don't have any of these things," Thompson said. "Plus you have other elements it took Vegas 50 to 75 years to develop."
The other big surprise of the discussion, which lasted almost two hours, was remarks by Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo.
Initially, Hoyt made it clear once again that he was opposed to casino gaming "for economic reasons . . . and if these casinos go forward here, we could have saturation with six or seven gambling facilities within a 50-mile radius of Buffalo."
Later, however, Hoyt was urging that any casino development "keep in mind the rich historic architecture of Buffalo . . . (and) use existing buildings, like the proposal for the Statler (Towers)." He then offered a laundry list of how casino profits could be used by the city.
At the top of the list was "tearing down the Skyway," a suggestion that prompted applause from the crowd attending the panel discussion sponsored by Working For Downtown.
Hoyt acknowledged that he was outnumbered by the four other panelists, all of whom were in favor of a downtown Buffalo casino.
Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, a longtime casino proponent, urged that the casino be located in the downtown area rather than on the waterfront. He also wanted the city to receive "the lion's share" of the 25 percent of casino profits promised the state by the Seneca Nation of Indians, which would own the casino.
Richard Jemison, Seneca Nation tribal councilor and chairman of the tribe's casino compact negotiating team, was diplomatic in commenting on remarks attributed to Gov. George E. Pataki regarding how the 25 percent would be shared.
Pataki reportedly has proposed that 3 percent be divided among Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Erie and Niagara counties, and that the state keep 22 percent.
"We did not feel it was our place to negotiate the sharing," Jemison told the crowd. "But we do feel it is important that there be enough local revenues to help the cities and the counties with whatever expenses they incur with the casino development."
Jemison also did not say where his nation might want to locate a casino in Buffalo, explaining there was a 16-member Tribal Council and "we decide by consensus."
The fifth panelist was Kent Kleinman, chair of the Department of Architecture and Planning at the University at Buffalo, who said that "with care and deliberation, a casino could be designed that would complement the downtown and meet the needs of the people." He also pointed out that casinos now have windows and doors that open to the outside, as opposed to the older casinos that were intentionally built to keep customers inside once they entered the building.
Contrary to the common conception that most gamblers spend hours glued to the slot machines and gaming tables, Thompson said studies show "the average tourist to Las Vegas will spend four nights and five days in the city, spend four hours each day playing the games, so they have another 12 to 14 hours for eating, shopping, going to shows and just walking.
"That is the big thing because walking is free."
He urged those planning a casino for Buffalo to remember "you have to have an entertainment experience built into the area, not just a gambling experience. It is when you have people come only for gambling that you will have the problem of compulsive or addicted gamblers."
Jemison spoke more than once of the Senecas' hope to have a casino complex "that would be for the family . . . not just for gambling."