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Senecas revise plan for casino downtown President reaches out to waterfront groups

Construction of a permanent downtown Buffalo casino although smaller than originally planned -- is a top priority for the Seneca Nation, Robert Odawi Porter, president of the nation, said Friday.

Citing an improving economy and the recent refinancing of $500 million in the nation's gambling corporation debt, Porter said Seneca gambling officials are now in a position to move forward with a revised plan to replace the temporary casino in the Cobblestone District.

But before that happens, Porter says the nation is reaching out to other stakeholders in the vicinity of the downtown waterfront to see if there can be a collective approach in the development of the area.

During the years Bass Pro was being courted as the anchor for waterfront development, Porter said, there was almost no mention of the Seneca Nation's plans for a permanent casino that had the potential to attract 10,000 visitors a day.

The tribe's casino in Niagara Falls has about 20,000 daily visitors.

And while Porter cautioned that the original $330 million development for Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino is no longer feasible, he said "whatever the ultimate plan is we want it more harmonious" to neighboring development plans.

The rusty skeletal steel girders forming what was to be the permanent casino off Michigan and South Park avenues, Porter added, may end up being scrapped, depending on the ongoing review of the Buffalo casino.

After meeting Friday with the Editorial Board of The Buffalo News to share the goals of his administration, Porter, who was elected nation president last month, met with Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown regarding several issues, including the casino.

"Mayor Brown was very pleased to hear how President Porter would like to modify the development of that site and integrate more into what is already taking place along Buffalo's waterfront," said Peter Cutler, Brown's spokesman. "What President Porter said more than anything is he wants to have an open line of communication with the city and other stakeholders."

In addition, a dialogue has been established with the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., according to Thomas P. Dee, corporation president.

"We have been engaged in a dialogue with them and are enthusiastic about discovering ways in which our organizations might collaborate," Dee said later Friday.

The number of casino patrons, Porter told the Editorial Board, is rebounding and among them are many Canadians, prompting him to express concern over the need for construction of a new Peace Bridge. That would ensure easy international passage for those patrons, he said.

On other issues, Porter said he supports creation of two Native American academies for the nation's schoolchildren and that he hopes for improved relations with the incoming administration of Gov.-elect Andrew M. Cuomo.

At present, the nation is withholding more than $200 million in slot machine revenue from the state, claiming the state violated the gambling compact's clause that guarantees the nation exclusivity in operating slot machines in this region.

Outgoing Gov. David A. Paterson has requested an arbitrator settle the dispute, but Porter said he hopes Cuomo will withdraw that request and continue discussions.

On the question of establishing a school on the nation's Cattaraugus and Allegany territories, Porter said he would support it if the Tribal Council adopts a new resolution favoring it.

The schools would help preserve the nation's "fragile" language and customs, he said.

On the issue of the state attempting to collect sales tax on cigarettes sold by Native American retailers to non-Indians, Porter again stressed that he will not be tolerant of any efforts to take away long-settled treaties granting the nation free commerce within its borders.

Another priority of Porter's administration is gaining the rights to operate the hydroelectric plant at the Kinzua Dam, which was built on Seneca land seized by the federal government a half century ago to control flooding of the Allegheny River.

The federal government's relicensing process for the facility unfolds in the next few years and, Porter said, the nation will be pushing hard to gain control of the generating plant, which is currently operated by an Ohio utility company.

If the nation succeeds, Porter said, the 450 megawatts generated at the plant would be a major economic tool to create business in the region.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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