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CASINO PROSPECT AROUSES REALTY INTEREST

Legislative approval of a bill to allow a casino in Niagara Falls has increased developer interest in the city, but it's too early to expect announcements of casino-related projects, development officials said.

The Seneca Nation still must approve the proposal, a prospect that tribal leaders have said is not a sure bet. Another factor that developers will be watching are lawsuits filed to stop Gov. George E. Pataki's gambling initiative.

But the last major hurdle to beginning individual building projects will likely be Seneca approval, said John Simon, executive director of the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency.

At least four hotel or entertainment projects planned for downtown Niagara Falls, including two four-star hotel proposals, are currently in advanced stages of preparation, Simon said. "They're basically ready to go now, and have site control," said Simon.

If the Seneca casino vote passes, "I think some of the developers we're working with will start to more aggressively approach the city, the state and our agency for the assistance they need to approach their goals," Simon said.

There's no doubt that the Legislature's vote was an important step in the road toward casino development in Niagara Falls, said Roger Trevino, a spokesman for Niagara Falls Redevelopment, the city's master developer.

But with the Seneca Nation yet to accept or reject the idea, he said, the construction cranes so common on the Canadian side of the Niagara River probably won't soon appear on the U.S. side.

"Until and unless the referendum is passed, it's premature to expect major development announcements in Niagara Falls related to the casino," Trevino said.

NFR, which signed a development agreement with the city in 1997, has been fielding more inquiries than usual since the announcement Wednesday, Trevino said. But the casino, which the firm has advocated since its arrival, is not yet a sure bet, Trevino said, making it "too early for developers unfamiliar with the situation to perform their due diligence."

The Seneca Nation has not yet set a date for its vote. "We anxiously await the result of the Seneca Nation's referendum," Trevino said, "and we wish them well."

State government's Niagara Falls development office, USA Niagara Development Corp., has continued in past months to lay the groundwork for increased private investment in the tourist core, said Michael Wilton, director.

"Gov. Pataki's efforts to improve downtown Niagara Falls, attract private-sector investment and create jobs have been progressing and do not depend entirely on the opening of a Seneca Nation casino," Wilton said.

That said, USA Niagara, currently involved in selecting a consultant to guide its request for proposals, expects passage of the casino bill to stimulate inquiries, Wilton said. "With these casino plans in place," he said, "we are anticipating a huge influx of interest from businesses looking to invest and create jobs here."

e-mail: agalarneau@buffnews.com

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