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On the cusp of big casino downtown, a larger development picture emerges

Seneca Gaming Corp. officials say they are betting that the new Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino will both benefit from and contribute to the larger redevelopment activity in downtown Buffalo.

They are looking toward a soft opening of the permanent building toward the end of the summer.

Executives of the tribal casino company said Wednesday that they want to be an integral part of the nearby Canalside activity, taking advantage of sporting events and concerts at First Niagara Center or other waterfront attractions that draw people downtown.

“We absolutely do see ourselves part of what’s going on,” said Jim Wise, senior vice president of marketing for Seneca Gaming.

Rather than consider the casino a self-contained “island” in which patrons come only to gamble and get everything they need inside the building, the executives are counting on people who come downtown for other reasons but then migrate over to the new $130 million casino.

In fact, the planned main entrance of the casino, in the northwest corner of the tribe’s sovereign territory at Michigan Avenue and Perry Street, will face diagonally toward Canalside and First Niagara Center a couple of blocks away.

“The good news over the last couple of years is the amount of development,” Rob Chamberlain, senior vice president of design and construction for Seneca Gaming, said as he and Wise took members of the media on a tour through the new casino, which is not yet finished.

“Hopefully, we can be a part of that. We’re just down the street from the Erie Canal Harbor.”

In turn, they’re expecting some of their patrons in turn to check out the other downtown activities, restaurants and venues when they come down to the casino. And they say they would welcome other developers opening hotels, restaurants or other facilities around them.

“We want to see those amenities grow and develop around us,” Wise said.

“I think it’ll transform the whole area. It’s gone from industrial to entertainment,” said Kevin W. Seneca, chairman of Seneca Gaming. “Any city, to be successful, doesn’t have just one anchor. You need multiple venues of entertainment to bring this area back.”

The new opportunity marks a major change for the Senecas, who originally announced their Buffalo casino more than five years ago, well before the current construction and development boom took hold. At the time, the casino appeared likely to be a solitary new project in what was otherwise a wasteland of old industrial buildings, parking lots and vacant land.

Today, the casino is 85 percent finished, Chamberlain said, with a mixture of electrical work, flooring, and other features still remaining. So far, the construction work is actually several weeks ahead of schedule, with about 25 contractors and about 100 workers currently on site.

Upon completion, the casino will have about 850 slot machines and 18 table games, including blackjack, roulette, dice, mini-baccarat and a few others that are either popular or will be tested. About half of the machines will be completely new, while the rest will move over from the existing building.

There’s also a four-story concrete parking garage nearing completion, with 725 spaces. Including the surface parking, there are 1,100 spaces in all, including for employees, VIP and valet.

Earth tones and textures dominate the building, with natural stone brick walls and entryways and a color mixture of red, brown, dark blue, gray and white. The interior is filled with references to Seneca culture, while flooring includes decorative marble tiles and carpeting at the two entrances.

There will also be a “Tree of Peace” element surrounding a structural column in the front, symbolizing people coming together.

The casino also will feature a 102-seat Buffalo-themed casual grill and restaurant, and a 52-seat raised center bar, with a bank of television screens and a revolving sports ticker. There also will be a Tim Hortons-style but not-yet-named bakery and coffee shop. In all, there will be about 47,000 square feet of gaming and entertainment space, with an additional 20,000 square feet for the “back-of-the-house” operations and finance area, including the computer room, a security room tied to multiple cameras, and offices.

But unlike the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel in Niagara Falls and other casino resorts, there’s no upscale restaurant, no hotel and no stage. And officials say that’s deliberate, although other options have been considered at various times.

“If someone else develops a restaurant around us, that’s a good thing. … If someone wants to build a hotel next to us, that’s great,” Chamberlain said. “We’d like to be part of the larger development.”

Already, the casino has benefited from spinoff business after Sabres and Bisons games, and also has picked up customers since the casino in Fort Erie, Ont., closed.

The casino will employ about 500 people, including about 150 from the existing site, and officials said that most of the new positions have now been filled, after Seneca Gaming held a couple of job fairs recently.

“I think you need a lot of good things happening at the same time for any major city to turn around,” Wise said. “That’s what we’re excited about. We’re just one piece. We’re not everybody’s cup of tea, and we’re comfortable with that. There’s a lot of entertainment down here. This city has a lot to offer.”