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Area casinos up the ante Growth of gaming facilities around the falls creates competition to attract clientele

The casino wars on both sides of the border have begun. Let the chips fall where they may.

Four casinos already are taking wagers in the Buffalo Niagara region and a fifth is expected to open by 2007 in Buffalo. As they grow and mature, they will need to take on their own identities to develop and protect their markets, gambling experts say.

The region's first casino -- Casino Niagara, built in 1996 in Niagara Falls, Ont. -- is a case in point.

On Friday, it unveiled its new look: a $10 million (U.S.) sports betting lounge, poker room, two new bars and classic blues-style restaurant.

The casino opened its wallet to compete with the hugely successful, year-old Fallsview Casino Resort on nearby Murray Hill.

A new hotel also will bolster Casino Niagara. The DiCienzo family, which owns Canadian Niagara Hotels, recently said it would build a 59-story hotel next door.

Meanwhile, hotel development continues to flourish alongside the Fallsview. Canada's DiCosimo family, which owns the Hospitality Hotels chain, plans to extend its Hilton Hotel opposite that casino to 58 stories.

On the American side, Seneca Niagara Casino will open the first 10 floors, including 300 rooms and three restaurants, of a 26-story, $200 million-plus hotel on New Year's Eve. Two more hotels also are planned near the Seneca Niagara.

The Seneca Allegany Casino, which opened in Salamanca in May 2004, will begin construction of an 11-story, 220-room hotel before the end of the year.

In Buffalo, the Seneca Nation will announce this month the downtown location for a 120,000-square-foot casino. No hotel has been mentioned so far in any of the Buffalo casino negotiations, but gambling experts say they won't be surprised to see one, or more, nearby in the years go come.

"If the clientele is purely local, you're just picking your own pocket," explained William N. Thompson, a University of Nevada professor who specializes in the gambling and hospitality industry. "Casinos are only healthy for the local economy if you bring in people from outside."

> More hotel rooms

It helps to have a Wonder of the World in your neighborhood. The two skyscraper hotels that will rise on the Ontario side in the next two years will add 850 rooms to the more than 16,000 that already exist for the 10 million people who visit the falls every year from around the world.

Niagara Falls, Ont., Mayor R.T. "Ted" Salci sees the number of visitors doubling in the next five years, particularly with a new advertising campaign targeting the Asian market.

"In mainland China, you have 30 million people on the move each year," Salci said. "The potential here is so great I don't see a limit at the moment on the number of hotel rooms we can have."

The Seneca Niagara Casino hotel, when fully opened in March, will add 600 rooms on the American side.

"The new hotel will strengthen our impact on the local economy by allowing us to aggressively market our property to individuals from around the world," said Philip J. Pantano, Seneca Niagara's public relations manager.

Casino Niagara, in going ahead with what general manager Drew Chamberlain calls a "drastic" makeover, recognizes the international appeal of the Fallsview Casino Resort and plans instead to aggressively go after a more regional market from Hamilton to Buffalo.

If this were a game of Texas Hold 'em, the Buffalo casino would be the all-important river card -- the fifth community card dealt face-up -- the make-it-or-break-it card, where a player can win or "drown at the river."

With the gambling pot growing bigger, is there a chance Buffalo will drown at the river?

No way, the experts say.

> A sure thing

The local population alone -- people living within a 50-mile radius or an hour's drive -- could easily support five casinos in the Buffalo Niagara region, Thompson said.

"If you bring in people from outside that ring, you could double the number of casinos and hotels in the area before you reach any kind of saturation point," he said. "If you include patrons from Toronto, you could triple that number."

With five casinos, the Buffalo Niagara region would rank 10th nationwide among cities with the highest concentration of casinos, far behind Las Vegas, with 84 casinos, but not too far behind Atlantic City's 12, Lake Tahoe's 10 and the nine in Tunica, Miss., and beating the Detroit-Windsor area by one.

Niagara Falls, Ont., is by far the region's leader. Since opening at the base of the Clifton Hill tourist district, the three-story Casino Niagara has seen 68 million patrons pass through its doors and taken in millions of dollars in revenue, said Chamberlain.

When the 30-story Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort opened, attracting entertainment stars and high rollers, Casino Niagara felt the competition.

Both casinos are owned by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp., an agency of the provincial government, and operated by Falls Management Co., a private outfit, but they still compete for patrons by carving out a particular niche.

Gambling revenue and patrons at both casinos continue to increase every year, with a combined take of $129 million (U.S.) for the first quarter of this year, said Teresa Roncon, the gambling corporation's manager of public relations.

The new look Casino Niagara features a wall of 26 high-definition TV screens beaming in global sports events, a ticker tape with the latest scores and results, and Canada's only wagering facility covering all sports, including horse racing.

The Senecas own both Western New York casinos, and will own the one in Buffalo, too. Like the provincial government in Ontario, their challenge will be to make sure the casinos are different enough to maintain financial stability.

> Flagship in the Falls

"In terms of size, the Seneca Niagara Casino and hotel will continue to be the flagship of the three properties," Pantano said. "Each of the properties, however, will have its own distinctive personality, which will diversify what we have to offer."

Niagara Falls has a high-limit gambling room and Salamanca does not, Pantano said. He said other changes will occur as the Seneca casinos continue to evolve.

Seneca Niagara Casino and Hotel announced Friday it's embarking on an aggressive hiring campaign to fill 1,000 jobs at the new hotel, adding to the 2,400 people already working there, and the 850 in the Salamanca operation.

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

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