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Senecas’ plan for Niagara Falls is no big deal

Like most ideas in Niagara Falls, the plans were big: an expanded Seneca Niagara Casino that would fill 50 acres, adding more hotel rooms and entertainment space to a sprawling casino resort that would “enrich the current downtown skyline.”

That was the future spelled out by state development attorneys in 2005 when they laid the legal groundwork for seizing privately owned land on behalf of the Seneca Nation of Indians.

Back then, construction was wrapping up on the Seneca Nation’s 26-story glass hotel in downtown Niagara Falls, and the future of gambling looked hot.

What has come of those expansion plans? Like most ideas in Niagara Falls, the city is still waiting. Increased casino competition and a rough economy put expansion ideas on ice, and, until recently, there has been little public talk of what would come next.

Which is one reason why, after years of waiting, a plan unveiled last week to build a gas station and convenience store landed with a thud.

It’s tough to rev up excitement for a place to fill up on gas, peanuts and – possibly – cheap cigarettes in a city that desperately needs more for tourists to do. Not to mention concerns from gas retailers who have to live under New York’s regulations and taxes.

Count Mayor Paul Dyster among those with little enthusiasm for the proposal. Local business owners, he said, would like to see “high investment per square foot” on Seneca land. He’s talking about the kind of stuff you’d think of at a casino resort – more gambling space, hotels or concert halls.

“You’re talking about a larger tourism economy where there’s opportunity for everyone to benefit,” Dyster said.

Gas pumps and a convenience store, frankly, don’t live up to what the Senecas have already built.

The Seneca Nation has been a powerhouse developer in the Falls since it opened a casino in 2003. The Senecas have built a 604-room hotel and spa, expanded gambling space and added restaurants and entertainment space. The casino and the slot machine revenue that it contributes to the city have helped spur slow but steady improvements on nearby land.

“The signs of rebirth that we are all seeing in Western New York today are a far cry from the economic environment that existed when the Nation first started this journey,” Seneca President Maurice John Sr. said in a statement, noting that the Senecas have invested more than $1 billion across the region and now employ about 6,000.

Seneca leaders argue that they have every right to determine what should be built on their sovereign land. State leaders signaled differently in a 2012 letter, noting that the Senecas’ gaming compact called for the land to be used for “gaming and commercial activities traditionally associated with the operation or conduct of a casino facility.”

All this is happening at a crucial time for Niagara Falls. The state law that outlines how slot revenue from Seneca casinos is split up will expire this year, and local officials are pressing for a better deal from the state.

Back when the casinos were still just an idea, Seneca leaders shrugged off fears that they would build gas stations on new territories. “That’s small potatoes compared to what you get from gaming,” then-Seneca President Rickey Armstrong told The Buffalo News.

Thirteen years later, a gas station still pretty much looks the same – small potatoes.