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Questioning casinos


A December 16 panel discussion about what a casino in downtown Rochester might be like showed at least one thing: The issue is still in the forefront of many people's minds. A crowd of well over 100 gathered at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center for the session, which was convened by Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson.

Last summer, local developer Tom Wilmot announced a plan to create a casino in downtown Rochester with the involvement of the Seneca-Cayuga tribe of Oklahoma. That plan is no longer alive, but Johnson, an outspoken critic of it, says the public still needs information about casinos.

"This issue continues to bubble up," he said at the forum, "and my belief is that this is the best time to have this kind of forum, when there is no active proposal on the table. It is a way for us to get better information so that if and when it resurfaces, the community can really approach it from a knowledge basis as opposed to an emotional base."

It was hard to tell what that emotional base might have been, or if indeed anyone with strong emotions showed up for the meeting. Though billed as a question-and-answer session, the questions were filtered through the city's Deputy Commissioner of Community Development Larry Stid, who read them from index cards.

Still, the three-member panel broke some new ground in the community's discussion of the merits and drawbacks of a downtown Indian casino. (Until the state legalizes gambling, an Indian-run casino is the only kind that would be able to operate in Rochester's downtown.)

Speakers at the forum were Niagara Falls Mayor Vince Anello, economist and gaming consultant Eugene Christiansen, and Albany Law School Attorney Robert Batson.The Seneca Indian Nation operates a casino in the heart of Niagara Falls, so Anello brought to the panel something that the other two could not --- blunt observations of the relationship between the city and the tribe. Anello characterized that relationship like this:

"The Senecas are being very good neighbors to us, that's for sure. But they're being good neighbors like when you have a neighbor where the neighbor stays in his yard, you stay in your yard, and you're good neighbors. There isn't any sharing of the lawnmower or anything like that. And that's the problem that we're having right now. Because when it comes time to plow the streets, it's our plows that plow the streets. When it's time to send an extra cop downtown, it's our tax dollars to send the police officer downtown."

Niagara Falls is supposed to get a share of the casino's revenue to pay for such increases in public services. But that money --- about $9.5 million --- is sitting in the state treasury in Albany, said Anello, where it's being used as a "political football."

That's because under the agreement between the state and the tribe, the state legislature must appropriate Niagara Falls' share of the casino money each year. Because of that arrangement, state legislators can hold the payment hostage, voting to release it only in exchange for other demands. That's something that clearly frustrates Anello.

"Get it in writing and make sure that what's written is well understood by everyone: That's the advice that I would give to the people here," he said.

Aside from an arrangement that leaves his city essentially powerless over its share of the revenue, Anello said the changes wrought by the casino are a mixed bag.

"The job creation is real," he said, as is the rise in property values on adjacent streets, which the city has taken to calling its "entertainment district." Furthermore, he said, there's been no substantial increase in crime or problems caused by compulsive gambling.

But Anello also notes that casino gambling isn't new to his community: Casino Niagara in Ontario, Canada, is only a 12-minute walk from his office at city hall. "It isn't as if we didn't have a casino within our community," he said.

He also warns against making direct comparisons between Rochester and Niagara Falls.

"Economically," he said of Rochester, "it's doing pretty well. That's in stark contrast to the city of Niagara Falls, which has had 35 years of decline." Prime downtown storefronts were covered in plywood, he said, "so when the casino came, we saw it as a little bit of a salvation."

It's lived up to that expectation, at least to some degree, said Anello, "but you can't take away the impact of 52 acres being taken out of the heart of your city that you can't collect taxes on."

But the impact goes beyond tax collection, the other panelists said.

In answer to a question about what might happen if a downtown casino failed, Batson --- a constitutional scholar and one-time state liaison to several tribal governments --- explained the (relatively) permanent nature of tribal land designations. "Once land becomes Indian land," he said, "the only way that it can cease being Indian land is by an act of Congress. The tribe cannot sell it. It doesn't revert back to the municipality." At those words a low whistle circulated around the room. "It is always Indian land," Batson said.

Batson also pointed out that local governments' rules and regulations don't apply, either.

"On that Indian land your building codes do not apply," he said. "Your zoning law does not apply." Anello affirmed that: The Senecas didn't need to file a permit or allow city inspectors into a 26-story high-rise hotel they are building in Niagara Falls, he said.

Such problems could have been averted for Niagara Falls if they had been addressed in the agreement between the tribe and the state, said Batson. For instance, the state could have insisted that tribal building codes be comparable to local ones.

"That has been included in compacts," he said. "Otherwise you can get some huge monolith facility that takes up the entire amount of land that's conveyed to the tribe."