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As expected, the U.S. Department of the Interior on Friday approved the land transfer that will allow the Seneca Nation of Indians to open a casino in Niagara Falls by the end of the year.

Neal A. McCaleb, assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, ruled that a Seneca casino at the Niagara Falls Convention Center will have no adverse environmental impact.

On the contrary, "the proposed project is anticipated to bring substantial economic benefits to the Seneca Nation and to bolster tourism and revitalization in downtown Niagara Falls," McCaleb wrote.

The casino, which is set for a New Year's Eve opening, will create 2,000 permanent jobs along with 1,400 jobs during construction.

"This is a historic day," said Seneca Nation President Rickey Armstrong, noting that the tribe had added to its land in Western New York for the first time in memory.

"Everything looks really good," Armstrong said. "I don't think there are any more obstacles left."

However, a lawsuit filed by casino opponents -- who claim the deal violates the state constitution's ban on casino gambling -- could conceivably get in the way of the Senecas' plans.

Friday's Interior Department ruling followed a Nov. 12 letter in which McCaleb's boss, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, ruled that the Senecas had the right to quickly acquire land for a casino in Western New York.

Most Indian tribes that want to open off-reservation casinos face a long and arduous process. But Norton ruled that a passage in the 1990 Seneca Nation Settlement Act, which settled a lease dispute in Salamanca, gave the tribe the right to buy land in Western New York without the extensive community-impact review that other tribes face elsewhere.

The Senecas did hire a company to produce an environmental assessment of the casino. McCaleb said that assessment showed that the casino will not cause environmental problems, meaning that a full-fledged environmental impact statement will not be required.

The casino will not increase traffic volume to the point where additional roads or traffic lanes will have to be built, the environmental assessment said. The only planned changes will be changed signal timing and improved signal equipment at the intersection of John B. Daly Boulevard and Rainbow Boulevard, and at Rainbow Boulevard and Third Street.

Current sewer, water and emergency services in Niagara Falls are adequate to handle the casino, McCaleb added.

All told, McCaleb said, "no significant impacts to the human environment were identified" in the environmental assessment.

McCaleb based his memo on a recommendation from the Bureau of Indian Affairs Indian Gaming Management Staff. That recommendation noted that under the Seneca Nation Settlement Act, the Senecas could buy land with the $35 million in federal money they got under that bill, provided that the purchase met a handful of requirements.

The land to be purchased must be "within or near proximity to former reservation land," and local governments must be given 30 days to comment on the land transfer.

Local governments unanimously said they favored the land transfer, wrote George Skibine, head of the Indian Gaming Management Staff.

"All applicable federal requirements for the acquisition of the Niagara Falls Convention Center . . . have been satisfied," Skibine wrote.

McCaleb's action approves the transfer of 12.8 acres of downtown Niagara Falls, including the convention center site, to the Senecas.

Also Friday, Seneca Nation spokeswoman Beth Kelly confirmed that Seneca Niagara Casino is on target for its Dec. 31 debut.

Bases for about 2,500 slot machines were installed this week and the machines themselves are expected to be delivered next week.

Also, carpeting for the gambling area is three-quarters installed, according to a statement from Al Luciani, construction manager for the Seneca Niagara Falls Gaming Corp.

The floor of the building was raised 4 inches to accommodate wiring and that work is almost complete, Luciani said. He also said a pub and buffet restaurant are nearly done.

Installation of light boxes on the front windows of the buildingis half done. Completion of the light boxes, which will create a colorful glass mosaic depicting a forest, is targeted for the middle of December.

Niagara Bureau Reporter Thomas J. Prohaska contributed to this report.

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