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‘Outdated’ state law leaves Erie Canal duck race high and dry

A little-known state law barring nonprofits from conducting games of chance as fundraisers on state property has forced a Niagara Falls charity to abruptly scrap the annual Duck Race at the Canal Fest of the Tonawandas just a week before the event was to take place.

Community Missions of Niagara Frontier Inc. announced it was canceling the eagerly anticipated event after recently learning it is illegal to conduct any gambling activities, even for charity, on state property. That includes the Erie Canal, where the festival is held.

The race has been held every summer for years without concern, and some people encouraged the social services agency to proceed with it anyway, said Community Missions Executive Director Robyn Krueger. But the group’s leadership and board decided it would be unethical and too risky to the organization’s reputation – and finances – to flout the rules now that the legal conflict has been publicly floated.

“We were unaware of that law for the many years we ran the race prior to that, but now that we know it, we were concerned that we were not in a position to pay a fine and did not want to knowingly break the law,” Krueger said. “We just didn’t think it was appropriate for us, being a private not-for-profit, to know the law and ignore the law.”

State Sen. Robert G. Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, is drafting legislation to “change this outdated law,” said his spokeswoman, Antoinette DelBel. But the bill won’t be introduced until the next legislative session begins in January.

That’s too late for this year’s race, but Krueger said the agency hopes to be back after it has all of its ducks in a row.

“We’re really hoping that this legislation can be passed and, hopefully, the duck race can be continued,” Krueger said, adding that the organization was “heartened” by Ortt’s action. “Hopefully, next year, all the ducks will be swimming, and they’ll be swimming legally in the canal waters.”

Founded in 1925, Community Missions offers referrals, crisis and community support and residential services for both youth and adults, serving those who are neglected or abused, as well as those with psychiatric disabilities, parolees, at-risk youth and other underserved populations.

It operates a community soup kitchen, a food pantry and emergency housing. And last year, it provided more than 86,000 meals and 10,000 nights of care to clients throughout Niagara County and supported more than 1,000 individuals with mental illness.

The duck race has been run for many years as part of Canal Fest, with Community Missions picking it up about eight years ago from Niagara County Community College. The agency raises $6,000-$8,000 each year from the race, after paying out prizes.

But this year, representatives of a festival in the Rochester suburb of Brockport that had been running a similar race for years contacted the state to make sure its permits were in order. To its shock, it learned of the state law that only allows nonprofits to run games of chance or raffles on their own property or with the permission of another property owner, but never on state property. The Buffalo River may be acceptable, but not the state-operated Canal.

Community Missions already had two event sponsors put up a combined $1,100 and had sold 40 to 50 of the pink, blue and yellow plastic, weighted ducks to individuals, who paid $100 for a “flock” of 30, $25 for a “quack pack” of six ducks or $5 each. The ducks float down the canal to determine a winner. In all, the agency had about 1,000 ducks for sale.

Krueger said Community Missions had contacted individual buyers to offer to return the money, but many said the agency could keep it. Still, “we didn’t want to continue to sell ducks and take a chance,” she said.