Anyone who supports the establishment of a permanent gambling casino in downtown Buffalo has to be pleased by the announcement that the Seneca Nation of Indians wants to become a force in the development of the city's waterfront. And, happily, so can those who oppose the casino. The nation's support in creating a thriving waterfront district is welcome regardless of how the casino plan, itself, is resolved.
In fact, the Senecas seem to be generally approaching their neighbors in Buffalo and Niagara Falls in a more neighborly way since Robert Odawi Porter was elected the nation's president and Cathy Walker was named chief executive officer and president of the Seneca Gaming Corp. That new attitude is a positive development -- one that could pay rich dividends in Buffalo and might also help Niagara Falls achieve some of the benefits that many expected when the casino was first built in 2002.
For Buffalo, the Senecas say they want to help develop a walkable district that includes Coca-Cola Field, HSBC Arena, Erie Canal Harbor and, of course, the Buffalo Creek Casino. With their money and influence, the Senecas could be a potent force for the revival of Buffalo's waterfront area. A Native American aspect to the project would be both welcome and appropriate.
Just as important, though, is what the Senecas say they will not do: They will not build a hotel on casino grounds -- leaving it to others to house those who come to gamble at the casino -- and they will not offer eating establishments that duplicate nearby restaurants, existing or planned. Those are significant pledges, given the nation's significant economic advantages. As a sovereign nation, it charges no sales tax and as a casino operator, it can -- and does, in Niagara Falls -- offer rooms at discounted rates that traditional hoteliers cannot hope to match. Hotels in Niagara Falls are struggling under the influence of the casino's hotel.
For now, the Buffalo casino is just a warehouse-like building holding slot machines, but the tribe hopes to build a full casino when economic conditions improve. The casino plan is also the target of a federal court case filed by casino opponents. Seneca leaders say they expect to prevail in court.
In Niagara Falls, the Senecas have recently struck a deal with Niagara County Community College regarding its new culinary institute, taking shape in downtown Niagara Falls. The Seneca Gaming Corp. will give the institute $1.27 million over the next five years, which will provide internships at the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel for NCCC students and scholarships at the culinary institute for members of the Seneca Nation of Indians.
Seneca leaders point out, rightly so, that a casino alone can't rejuvenate the Buffalo waterfront or downtown Niagara Falls, and while we have been skeptical of putting a casino in Buffalo, if it survives legal challenges, it can be a key element in the mix of attractions in the two cities.
These welcome announcements by the Senecas could have a profound influence on the growth of the Western New York economy. The development of the Buffalo waterfront needs to be driven by the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., which was created for that purpose, but the corporation needs buy-in from citizens, businesses and other stakeholders. The deep-pocketed Senecas are clearly among those stakeholders. Their greater involvement and influence in Buffalo and Niagara Falls are welcome, indeed.