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Senecas' Buffalo casino advances

The Seneca Nation's bid for a Buffalo casino moved forward on two fronts Wednesday, with the tribe announcing that it had finished land acquisition and the state's highest court ending Cheektowaga's attempt to remain in the running for the project.

Seneca Nation President Barry E. Snyder Sr. clarified the tribe's plans for its Buffalo casino in a meeting with Rep. Brian M. Higgins, D-Buffalo, a day after the Court of Appeals issued its ruling.

In a news release, Snyder attempted to make clear that the tribe does not plan vast new land purchases in Western New York, even though its purchase practices indicate that might be possible.

"The nation has acquired all of the land necessary to build its Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino and fulfill our compact obligations," Snyder said.

The only other casino-land purchases the tribe plans are within the 50-acre "footprint" designated as its Niagara Falls casino site, Snyder added.

Snyder's press release did not say whether the tribe might buy land for other purposes, but Higgins said Snyder "said he didn't want to purchase any more land in Buffalo for anything."

Higgins asked for the meeting following a Buffalo News story that revealed the Senecas' two-step land purchase process.

In both Buffalo and Niagara Falls, tribal gambling corporations bought land at market rates and then sold it to the tribe for as little as $1 a parcel. That procedure could extend the value of a congressionally designated fund of $30 million that the tribe can use to buy land without going through a rigorous federal approval process.

Higgins said Snyder never explained why the tribe purchased property that way. Nevertheless, Higgins said he was satisfied with Snyder's response.

The casino could be a "small but significant component" of the redevelopment of Buffalo's Inner Harbor, said Higgins, who had expressed concerns that Seneca land buys could interfere with that redevelopment.

Meanwhile, the Court of Appeals dismissed Cheektowaga's request to hear a case that would have given the town a chance at the casino if the tribe's Buffalo plans fell through.

The court wrote that "the issues presented have become moot," in an apparent reference to the Senecas' gaming compact with the state, which set a Dec. 9, 2005, deadline for the nation to begin construction on a casino in Erie County. The Senecas met that deadline by breaking ground for a casino project on a nine-acre site in Buffalo's Cobblestone District.

"This is great. We win. It's over," said Michael B. Powers, attorney for Huron Group, the Buffalo business organization involved in the case. "Now we have three levels of review, all of whom have said the Senecas have to stay within the City of Buffalo if they want to operate a casino in Erie County."

Cheektowaga Supervisor Dennis H. Gabryszak said he was "deeply disappointed" by the high court ruling.

"I believe the Seneca Nation is still interested in the Town of Cheektowaga if the situation in Buffalo should change," said Gabryszak, citing the pending State Supreme Court lawsuit filed by Citizens for a Better Buffalo to try to stop the Buffalo gambling project.

In his press release, though, Snyder sounded confident about the Buffalo casino.

"The Seneca Nation plans to invest millions of dollars and create thousands of new jobs for Buffalo's economy," Snyder said. "Our sole intention in the City of Buffalo is to continue to build upon the economic success we have created and to develop a world-class facility that will help attract a critical mass of visitors to the city's Inner Harbor area."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com. and slinstedt@buffnews.com.

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