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Big gamble?

Questions --- and some answers --- on the casino deal



Plans to put a $500 million hotel and casino at MidtownPlaza and the SibleyBuilding are barreling ahead, with many local leaders unsure of their role in the proceedings. But word that nobody locally can have a say in the development may be inaccurate.

            Officials of Wilmorite (owner of the SibleyBuilding and several Rochester-area suburban malls) have been negotiating with Governor George Pataki and the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma on a deal that would rebuild MidtownPlaza as a casino and create a hotel across Main Street in the SibleyBuilding, removing both properties from the tax rolls.

            The State Legislature may act on the deal sometime this summer, and some local officials had been afraid there would be no chance for public input. But early this week, State Assemblymember Joe Morelle and Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson said they believe there'll be two opportunities for Rochester's voice to be heard:

            • Pataki's deal with the tribe will have to be approved by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. As part of that process, says Morelle, Pataki will have to prove that the development would not be harmful to the city, which will require input from the mayor.

            • Whatever compact is drawn between the state and the tribe will have to be approved by both the state Assembly and Senate.

            If the plan passes those hurdles, the tribe could embark on a private real-estate transaction with the owners of Midtown and Sibley. And, despite the project's huge impact on downtown, "these talks are going on without much involvement by the city," says Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson.

            City officials are trying to determine what role they might play. Johnson says the city's Albany lobbyist has been asking the Pataki administration for information about the negotiations. "He's not getting anywhere," Johnson said early this week.

            "Putting the issue of gambling aside," said Johnson, "everybody ought to be outraged that this is taking place in absolute secrecy. This is not about casino gambling. It's about local rights."

            Johnson says he is convinced that "a casino is not appropriate for downtown Rochester." And his displeasure extends to Wilmorite Chairman Tom Wilmot, whose company owes the city more than $13 million in taxes, delinquent loans, and late fees on the SibleyBuilding. (See the City Newspaper story "Big Debt Downtown," at; search for "Wilmorite.")

            "He indicated he committed $10 million [to the tribe]," Johnson says. "I would've viewed him in a much different light if he had sent us some of that money instead of bankrolling a casino."

            City officials are continuing to try to get information on the project and to argue for public input, Johnson said, and the city plans to hold public forums.

            Public comment is crucial, Johnson said, and it needs to come quickly. There'll be little point in commenting after the deal is approved, he said, and the legislature could be called back into session at any time.

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