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Spitzer urged to attack Falls blight Development plan uses casino revenues

Leaders from the city and Seneca Nation of Indians called Thursday for Gov.-elect Eliot L. Spitzer to sign on to a plan to use local and state casino revenue to redevelop blighted downtown neighborhoods in the shadow of the Seneca Niagara Casino.

The goal of the multimillion-dollar plan would be to connect the casino and Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center several blocks away with a string of quality housing options and new businesses, a plan backers say will attract new residents and improve the quality of life in a city that has bled population for decades.

Mayor Vince Anello called the plan "a mixed commercial and residential project that will permanently change the urban landscape and social fabric of downtown Niagara Falls."

Anello officially called on Spitzer to support the project in a morning news conference in Conference Center Niagara Falls. The mayor was joined by several supporters, including Joseph Ruffalo, president and chief executive officer of Niagara Falls Memorial; Falls School Superintendent Carmen A. Granto; City Council members; and three state lawmakers with a stake in the city's future.

All signed a letter to Spitzer, asking him to use some state casino revenues to help construct housing near the casino on Fourth Street and upgrade or replace all the residential and commercial buildings from Niagara Street to Pine Avenue, between Fourth and 10th streets.

Seneca officials were among about 40 people who gathered to voice support.

Barry E. Snyder Sr., chairman of Seneca Gaming Corp., said it is good that his neighbors are thinking of his nearly 3,000 workers at the casino, many of whom would like more quality housing options near the casino. Quality housing also would attract new employees, he said.

"A very important step has been taken, and we want to be a part of it," Snyder said.

Ruffalo agreed. "We are constantly recruiting physicians . . .," he said. "The very first question that they ask is, 'Is there housing near the hospital?' "

Philip J. Pantano, the casino's public relations manager, has said many casino workers travel up to 40 minutes to and from work, and some come from as far as 60 miles away.

Anello said he has no idea how much such a project would cost. The next step would be to submit requests for a consultant on the project, in the hope of receiving proposals in late January or early February.

"We've been working on it 2 1/2 years," the mayor said.

The city Economic Development Department is drafting the plan.

The letter to Spitzer states, in part, that "not a single penny of tax dollars will be needed to accomplish this. . . . A portion of the local share of casino revenue supplemented with the state revenue generated by the casino can fund this project . . . We ask that the New York State Empire State Development Corporation lead this project."

City leaders have agreed to spend $12 million of the local share -- an amount to be spread over 11 years -- to support the redevelopment project. They are asking Spitzer to use a portion of the state's share but didn't say how much.

Gov. George E. Pataki, who leaves office after next week, has responded unfavorably to the mayor's previous requests for part of the state share, Anello said.

For 2004 and 2005, the city received more than $6.8 million a year in local slots revenues from the casino, but under state legislation awaiting Pataki's signature, that amount could grow to at least $11.2 million for each of the next 11 years.

A spokeswoman from Spitzer's office was asked to comment but had yet to respond by Thursday night.

Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte, D-Lewiston, said using state casino revenues to construct quality downtown housing is well within the 2002 compact with the Seneca Nation of Indians.

The announcement to seek state casino proceeds comes on the heels of an announcement made Tuesday by Pataki that he plans to sign a bill that will guide how millions in local casino revenues would be spent during the next 11 years -- with 93 percent going through City Hall.

The bill would amend state finance law regarding the 2002 compact with the Senecas and the tribal-state revenue account, which receives at least 25 percent of slots revenue from the Seneca Niagara Casino. That money goes to the state, which provides one-quarter of it as the "local share" to the casino's host community.

The new bill would guide local slots revenues from 2006 to 2016, sending revenues to the city to be spent on projects that "enhance economic development, neighborhood revitalization, public health and safety, and infrastructure improvement."

The city also would be responsible for allocating up to $750,000 every year to both Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center and the Niagara Falls City School District for capital construction projects, as well as a portion of the revenue to the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. to be spent on promoting the county.

e-mail: pkowalik@buffnews.com

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