It's still being called "a dream," but a California real-estate developer continues to look into the possibility of turning roughly 1,000 acres of Henrietta wetlands into a casino resort.
Back in December, Tower Investments spent $3.5 million to acquire the Riverwood Campus, a former training and office facility for the Eastman Kodak Company. Riverwood is situated on 150 acres of wetlands along the Genesee River, not far from the intersection of Lehigh Station and East River Roads.
Since then, Tower's been looking for ways to capitalize on its investment, and it's been quietly poking around local, state, and federal governments to see if a casino --- as part of an Indian land-claim settlement --- would fly in this largely rural portion of Henrietta.
Tower's preliminary casino concept is sweeping and ambitious, calling for the acquisition of an additional 750 acres of Kodak-owned land around Riverwood. The plans include a golf course, conference center, tennis complex, hotel, spa, and a marina on the Genesee River. It would require the widening of a portion of Lehigh Station Road and, possibly, a Thruway exit at East River Road.
"This is like a dream they have," Henrietta Town Supervisor Jim Breese says of Tower, which has never developed a casino. "They bought the property cheap from Kodak, and now they're exploring possible uses of it. They've talked to the county executive, the mayor. They've talked to people in Washington and Albany. I think they're just kind of feeling their way here to see what the reaction to a casino would be in this area. They may drop this idea and move on to something else."
Breese says he's "non-committal" about the proposal because "there are so many different agencies that get involved in a casino."
"I'll be surprised if you ever see a casino on that property," he says.
Tower's casino idea was deemed unlikely even before the company started making itpublic. Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson unintentionally set the local media abuzz when he first referred to Tower's interest during a panel discussion on casino gambling and development.
"I was trying to illustrate my point that casino development in New York State was virtually impossible in a non-Indian land-claim situation," Johnson said the day after the forum. "And I just cited an inquiry that had been made by an out-of-state developer [Tower]. This is something people are interested in, but as you get into it, you see all the impediments that exist."
Casino gambling is illegal in New York State unless it's happening on Native American land or at state-sanctioned horse tracks. Complicating matters is that no tribes are operating casinos in any state other than the one in which their reservation is located.
Out-of-state arrangements require the OK of Congress, which has been generally considered averse to what's called "reservation shopping" --- tribes seeking land for casinos far from their reservation. House Resources Committee Chair Richard Pombo (R-California) is circulating a draft bill that would put an end to reservation shopping by limiting Indian casinos and consolidating them on no more than two "Indian Economic Opportunity Zones" per state. The Resources Committee is expected to discuss Pombo's draft later this week.
"Some of these tribes are run more like businesses," says Rochester gaming attorney Rick Geiger. "And they have competing interests. Some say it's OK for out-state tribes to get land claims. Some say it's not OK. It's a complex debate, and it's big. There's a lot of money to be made in Indian gaming right now. It was an $18.5 billion industry last year. That's twice the size of Las Vegas."
The complicated nuances of Indian land claims tend to prevent many casino deals. But Tower's recent enlisting of lobbyists in Washington, DC, shows that it hasn't finished feeling out the process.
Still, all the political backing in the world is meaningless unless Tower can get an Indian tribe on board with its Henrietta casino concept. The developer's ideal playing partner may be the Seneca Indian Nation of New York (not to be confused with the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma, which was eying a downtown Rochester casino). The Senecas were recently excluded from a precedent-setting proposal by Governor George Pataki for five Indian-owned casinos in the Catskills --- some to be run by out-of-state tribes --- that's pending approval by the state legislature and Congress.
The Senecas, who already run casinos in Niagara Falls and Salamanca, had been pushing to get a deal in the Catskills, thought to be a prime location for casinos because of their proximity to Manhattan. Just a couple of weeks before Pataki released his February 3 legislation, the Seneca Nation offered the state $500 million --- and said it would move its planned Erie County casino from Cheektowaga to downtown Buffalo --- in exchange for a deal in the Catskills. The offer was conceived by Rochester developer David Flaum, who has been trying to partner with the Senecas on a casino for years.