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Senecas unveil Buffalo Creek Casino expansion $9 million project leads to doubling size, slots

The temporary Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino opened in 2007 with little fanfare in a bland metal building, painted light blue, that had 124 slot machines.

Tuesday, the Senecas showed off a new $9 million expansion that doubled the size of the temporary operation, but a steel frame for the permanent casino and hotel still looms over it.

The Senecas insist they plan to finish the permanent casino once the economy recovers, but they have pumped a total of $20 million into the temporary casino off Michigan Avenue at Fulton Street.

"The expansion project that we are unveiling today was built on excitement and momentum," Kevin W. Seneca, chairman of Seneca Gaming Corp., said at a news conference. "Despite economic conditions that have challenged every casino operator in this country, Seneca Gaming Corp. has continued to stand out as a leader in our industry."

The expansion boosts the casino to 10,800 square feet and raises the number of slot machines to 455.

Seneca officials say the expansion is a sign of their ongoing financial commitment to Buffalo.

However, several lawsuits seek to shut down the casino, and opponents say the Senecas' three area casinos have hurt the region economically and increased problem gambling.

"The new temporary casino will be twice as damaging as the old temporary casino," said Joel Rose, co-chairman of Citizens Against Casino Gambling in Erie County.

Tuesday's event was intended to tout the expanded casino, but Seneca Nation President Barry E. Snyder Sr. also took the opportunity to criticize the state's efforts to tax Indian cigarette sales, which he contended would violate sacred treaties in an attempt to alleviate the state's budget woes.

"It is a crisis that the state created and not a problem that the Seneca Nation should be expected to fix," he said.

This is the second expansion of the temporary casino since its unpublicized opening in 2007.

This latest investment added 223 slot machines, with names such as "Quick Hit Platinum" and "Bright Diamonds," and 5,300 square feet of gambling space.

The slot machines started going online about two weeks ago, and the expanded wing of the casino was about half-filled Tuesday afternoon.

"We go to the other casinos, but now that this one has expanded, we'll probably come here more often. It was too small before," said Pat Woelfel, a retired nurse from West Seneca, who came with her husband, Tom.

"I think it gives added value to Buffalo," said Gene Utech, a retired Army veteran from Amherst who visits the casino weekly. He praised the Senecas for continuing to spend money in the city.

The financial downturn prompted the Senecas in 2008 to stop construction on the planned $333 million casino and hotel just a short distance from the temporary facility.

The steel frame for the new casino has sat exposed to the elements for two winters, but Seneca officials say the steel remains structurally sound.

The Seneca leaders vowed to continue building the larger facility, though the gaming corporation last year wrote off its $87 million investment in the project.

"We promised a few years ago that Buffalo Creek would be one of our future casino enterprises, and we continue to work on that," Snyder told reporters. "Hopefully, some day shortly, when the economy changes, we'll see the fruition of the casino downtown."

No city or county officials were introduced at the news conference. Peter K. Cutler, a spokesman for Mayor Byron W. Brown, said he didn't know if the mayor had been invited.

"The city's always had a good relationship with the Seneca Nation leadership. The decisions they make are based on the current economic conditions," Cutler said. "Once the economic conditions improve . . . we expect that the nation and the gaming corporation will likely revisit that original plan."

The Senecas' financial picture improved in 2009.

The gaming corporation announced last month that despite declining revenue, profits rose 23 percent in the fiscal quarter that ended Dec. 31, compared with a year earlier, as the corporation slashed costs.

Overall, the Senecas' three casinos drew in more than 9.5 million people in 2009, as many gamblers chose to visit regional facilities instead of traveling to Las Vegas or Atlantic City, according to industry experts.

The downtown casino drew 541,063 visitors in 2009, up 29 percent from 2008.

The legal battle over the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino is unsettled.

Two lawsuits filed by casino opponents have made their way to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and a third suit awaits a verdict in U.S. District Court, said Cornelius D. Murray, an Albany lawyer representing one of the anti-casino groups.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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