Three years after a slumping economy helped stall casino expansions in Niagara Falls and Salamanca, Seneca Gaming Corp. is ready to build again.
Seneca leaders Tuesday announced the start of new construction on the Seneca Allegany Casino & Hotel in Salamanca, which will have nearly double the number of guest rooms when a new $53 million tower is completed.
"This is evidence of the impact and success that our casino properties can produce for Western New York and the important role we can play as a tourism leader," said Seneca Nation of Indians President Robert Odawi Porter. "Each year, millions of people line up at our doors who have traveled from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ontario, Michigan and parts of New York."
Those people are now flocking to the Southern Tier casino more than they did in 2008 and 2009, when the slumping economy caused the Seneca Nation to put casino expansion plans on hold there and in Niagara Falls.
The recession resulted in salary reductions and layoffs of 210 employees and, with the court battle over the proposed Seneca Buffalo Creek casino in downtown Buffalo, a rare net loss of $19 million for the 2009 fiscal year.
But the future has begun to look brighter, Seneca leaders say.
"Although the economy is far from great, it's at a place where people are willing to make an investment when they see value," said Jim Wise, senior vice president of marketing for Seneca Gaming. "We think people are willing to spend prudent dollars for a gaming trip or a destination trip."
Leaders consider the Salamanca casino a "destination" like the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel in the Falls, with multiple restaurants and upscale guest rooms.
They see the Falls casino, with more than 600 hotel rooms, as having reached its "market sizing" and "are not ready to make any announcements" on potential expansion there.
But the Seneca Allegany Casino & Hotel was always built to be larger, Wise said, and will have 413 guest rooms when the project is completed in early 2013.
Occupancy rates at the Salamanca location have consistently topped the 95 percent mark, often leading to a shortage of available rooms at peak times and during special events, Seneca leaders said.
That success has been attributed in part to the 2,300-seat Seneca Allegany Events Center, which has boasted a concert lineup and other events since its 2008 opening.
Wise said he believes that the Events Center, with new hotel rooms, could someday host midsize business meetings and conventions.
"We couldn't do it at 212, but we can do it at 413 rooms," he said.
Seneca Gaming is also encouraged by the expanding Southern Tier tourism market, Wise said, which includes skiers traveling to Ellicottville.
Porter told The Buffalo News in June that the Seneca Nation will not build a hotel on its sovereign 9-acre Buffalo casino grounds, leaving that to area developers. Wise said that those plans haven't changed.
"I think prudent, smart corporations like the Seneca Gaming Corp. invest when they see the future, and not always for exactly the present day," he said. "I think that bodes for the nation and the corporation, and [we are] enthusiastic for all properties and for Western New York overall."