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Cobblestone casino fight far from over

Construction of a gambling casino in Buffalo's Cobblestone District is essentially finished.

But the legal battle over its opening is far from completed.

A group that is fighting the casino project filed another federal court action Friday designed to prevent the Seneca Nation from ever opening the facility.

Meanwhile, a Seneca Gaming Corp. spokesman said the building on Michigan Avenue was completed a month ago and could quickly open for business if the proper legal authority is granted.

"Everything is ready but the slot machines," said Philip J. Pantano, spokesman for the Indian tribe's gambling company. "They cannot be moved onto the property until it's legally deemed as sovereign Indian territory."

Pantano said the Senecas are still hoping to open the 125-slot machine casino sometime this summer, despite a new legal challenge filed Friday by Citizens for a Better Buffalo and other casino opponents.

The casino opponents filed a notice of appeal with the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, asking the courts to declare that casino gambling cannot be legally conducted in the city because it is not sovereign Indian territory.

The appeal comes five months after a decision from District Judge William M. Skretny that was widely viewed as a major victory for casino opponents. In January, Skretny ordered the National Indian Gaming Commission to reconsider its 2002 decision allowing the Seneca Nation to build a casino on land it purchased at Michigan Avenue and Perry Street.

The federal commission must decide and show how the land bought by the Senecas near the HSBC hockey arena is "Indian land" before a casino can be legally opened there, Skretny ruled. Since then, the commission has been re-evaluating the Senecas' Buffalo casino application.

"We still consider Judge Skretny's [January] ruling to be a victory, but we believe he could have ruled on this himself, without sending the issue back to the gaming commission," said Joseph M. Finnerty, lead attorney for the anti-casino group. "We believe the judge underestimated his own authority in this case."

Pantano declined to comment on the legal fight, except to say the Senecas still believe they are right and will prevail.

Casino opponents so far have spent about $1 million on legal challenges to the casino in the state and federal courts. They say a casino would greatly increase bankruptcies, gambling addictions and other social problems in the city.

The Senecas contend their project would benefit the city. The tribe said it hopes to eventually build a larger, permanent casino that would provide at least 1,000 jobs. The $3.8 million facility that was completed last month, which will include only slot machines and a snack bar, is a temporary facility, the tribe said.

Last November, the Senecas said they planned to open the temporary casino in March, but those plans were derailed by the legal fight.

A spokesman for the gaming commission said he could not estimate how long it would take for the agency to complete its evaluations.


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