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Senecas open golf course<br> Nation's leaders optimistic about the future of its first project off reservation property

Seneca Nation President Barry Snyder Sr. showed little concern Monday morning about the state's latest plan to start collecting taxes on cigarettes sold by Indian retailers.

Snyder was much more focused on getting out to play on the 257 acres of green grass, wooded land and ponds that stretched out before him at the Seneca Hickory Stick Golf Course on Creek Road.

The $25.5 million course -- which will open to the public Friday -- is a significant step for the Seneca Nation of Indians. It is the nation's first economic development project off reservation land. And that, Snyder said, means another step on a path to "financial sovereignty."

Cigarette and gasoline sales, three casinos and now golf make up the bulk of the nation's economic formula for success.

"The significance of the project goes far beyond a round of golf," Snyder said during a ceremony Monday morning to mark the opening of the course. "It's another successful business venture for us. Seneca Hickory Stick Golf Course is the latest step in our journey toward financial sovereignty."

Snyder said the 18-hole, par-72 golf course, which sits about nine miles north of the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel, is a key step toward making the Niagara Falls casino a destination that will entice gamblers to stay for several days.

The course, built on former woodlands that extended along the Robert Moses Parkway, incorporates hickory trees and wetlands into its design. It also features an unusual double green at the ninth and 18th holes that will wind the golfer back to the clubhouse on both holes.

Bruce Charlton, president and chief design officer for Robert Trent Jones II Golf Course Architects, said the course is designed with "a lot of options for play." It also ends, he said, with a short, but deceptively demanding, par-3.

"What we like to do is just get the golfer thinking," Charlton said. "As soon as we've got the golfer thinking about shots, then, we think, we've added to the experience of the play."

The course, which features multiple tees to allow course play to range from 5,395 to 7,026 yards, is managed by KemperSports.

Because the course is not on reservation land, it is subject to property taxes. The Niagara County Industrial Development Agency in 2007 granted the project a five-year package of tax breaks expected to save the Senecas $1.6 million.

Even on the golf course, Snyder couldn't escape questions about the state's plan to tax Indian cigarette sales.

"What's the difference?" he said. "We've gone through this many times. We've gone through a lot of governors."

Snyder brushed off the suggestion that the state would implement its plan to collect taxes on Indian-sold cigarettes by Sept. 1 and said the nation is looking at a number of options, including the possibility of litigation, in response to the state's action.

Meanwhile, Snyder said, Seneca leaders continue to explore ways to diversify revenue sources -- both on and off reservation.

The Seneca Nation's first venture off territory land has not been free from controversy.

Construction of the course has been overshadowed by a federal investigation into the $2.1 million sale of the land to the Senecas in 2006. Disbarred attorney Timothy J. Toohey pleaded guilty to two federal charges in January and admitted he received $202,000 in an "unlawful agreement" when the land was sold.

The Seneca Gaming Corp. last month sued the company's former vice chairman, Bergal Mitchell III, and five other people for "wrongfully diverting" more than $800,000 from the land deal. The suit said the Senecas paid $2.1 million for the land, but the landowners received $1.2 million.

Snyder, on Monday, wasn't dwelling on that, either.

"We know that this venue here is something that we needed," Snyder said. "Whether or not you can put a value on it, what it's going to be in the future, for the gaming corporation or the Seneca Nation, I really don't know how to calculate that. I'm not in that position."

"But hopefully," he added, "we'll find out in a couple of years and see what kind of play we get out here, see what kind of revenues it can produce."

e-mail: djgee@buffnews.com

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