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Senecas tout role of casino

Rochester Business Journal
March 14, 2014

The Seneca Gaming Corp., which wants to open a casino in Henrietta, says it already pumps some $6 million into the Rochester economy annually.

The figure represents the amount the corporation pays out to local vendors, including food and beverage suppliers. The tally increases to $41.5 million for the region within 30 miles of Seneca Gaming’s established operations in the Buffalo area and increases to more than $100 million for Western New York.

Those numbers are expected to grow if the company moves forward with a proposal to build a casino in Henrietta, its leader said this week.

“A fourth location gives us the opportunity to only increase those amounts,” said Catherine Walker, president and CEO of Seneca Gaming.

In an interview with the Rochester Business Journal, Walker said a casino could be a boon to the local economy, increasing employment, creating opportunities for additional businesses to develop and bringing visitors into the region.

In early March, Seneca Gaming announced the purchase of roughly 32 acres on Clay Road in Henrietta as a potential site for an entertainment facility with a casino. The corporation is working with local developer David Flaum on the project.

The news prompted mixed public reviews, with some opposed to such an operation on a variety of grounds and others touting its economic benefits.

“We have a strong history of economic growth and job creation in the region,” Walker said.

Data provided by the corporation show that its facilities employ 4,000 people and have a payroll of $133 million, plus benefits. Since 2002, the Seneca Nation has paid nearly $1 billion in slot revenues to the state, of which 25 percent has been returned to host communities. The casinos attract 15 million people annually, of whom 26 percent are from outside the state.

The benefits extend outside the walls of the casinos, she said. Its other sites offer local craft beers on tap, for example, and visitors can win gift cards to local businesses.

Host communities receive a portion of casino revenues, as do counties in the region.

Seneca Gaming was established by the Seneca Nation of Indians in 2002 to run its gambling facilities. Under an agreement, the Seneca Nation committed to pay a portion of its revenues on slot machines and other devices to the state in exchange for the exclusive right to offer the devices west of state Route 14, which stretches southward from Sodus, Wayne County.

Seneca Gaming operates Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel, Seneca Allegany Casino & Hotel in Salamanca and Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino in downtown Buffalo.

Walker has led Seneca Gaming since 2010 and has worked there since 2008, formerly as its chief operating officer. She is responsible for the day-to-day operations and performance of the three casino properties.

Prior to joining Seneca Gaming, she spent eight years working for the Trump Organization Inc. She also has held executive positions for Harrah’s Entertainment Inc., now Caesars Entertainment Corp. In addition, she served 13 years as assistant general counsel for the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.

Henrietta site
While no specific development plans have been made for the local site, company officials believe it is suited for a full-scale gambling and entertainment destination, including a Seneca-owned and -operated casino, as well as a hotel, restaurants and retail space, which could be developed and operated by other local interests.

Based on preliminary projections, Seneca Gaming believes a Rochester-area development could create 2,400 construction jobs, representing $113 million in construction wages and a construction-period economic impact of $362 million.

Once completed, the development could create 5,000 direct and indirect jobs, including 2,000 on-site jobs. The ongoing economic impact of the project could reach $459 million annually.

While there is no timeline, Walker said development can be a lengthy process. For example, it took roughly three months to plan the Buffalo operation and then 13 months to get it up and running.

Local business leaders who have worked with the Seneca Nation described it as a good business partner. Regardless of their opinions on a casino location, they said the deal would result in job creation and economic growth.

Victor Salerno, CEO of Victor-based O’Connell Electric Co., said his firm worked on the Niagara Falls casino a few years ago. The job—a contract for several million dollars—lasted a few months and used roughly 20 of O’Connell’s electricians and apprentices.

“There were no issues, and that’s always a good sign,” he said.

Salerno, who is president of the Rochester chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association and a member of the Rochester Builders’ Exchange, said the industry is bullish on a local casino.

“We’d love to see it built,” he said, adding that the work would have a major positive impact on contractors in the area. “Contractors are ready and willing to get started.”

Palmer Food Services Inc. president Kip Palmer has maintained a good relationship with Seneca Gaming for 11 years. All three casinos are supplied by Palmer Food Services, and Seneca Gaming is one of the Henrietta-based firm’s larger customers.

Palmer describes the Seneca Gaming business leaders as professional and principled.

“They are very valued clients of ours,” he said.

While he did not offer an opinion on the proposed location, Palmer said any new Seneca Gaming venture would be a business opportunity for his firm.

Patrick Reilly, president of J.W. Danforth Co. in Tonawanda, Erie County, said his firm began working with the Seneca Nation on its Buffalo site in 2002 and has continued to work on projects over the years.

The heating, ventilating and air-conditioning firm, which has an office in Victor, is working on a renovation project for the corporation in Niagara Falls.

Work from Seneca Gaming has heavily boosted the firm’s revenues over the years.

“Some years it is a substantial part of our business,” Reilly said. “They do what they say they are going to do.”

Opposition to project
Others have expressed objections to the development proposal since it was announced.

In addition to community concerns about a local casino, legal action has been taken. Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. has filed a complaint with the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, accusing Flaum, the Seneca Nation of Indians and Seneca Gaming of violating state lobbying laws.

Henrietta Supervisor Jack Moore also has come out against the casino development in his town. Moore said he would introduce a resolution at the March 19 Town Board meeting to express opposition to a casino in Henrietta and to urge state and federal officials who have decision-making authority to deny permission for casino gambling in Henrietta.

“As Henrietta town supervisor, it is my responsibility to represent the views of the residents of the town,” Moore said in a statement.

Seneca leaders said they were surprised and disappointed by Moore’s announcement and had not been given the chance to present their plans for the site to the public or gather community input on its development.

They chose the site because of its proximity to highways and because the town has identified it as an area for commercial development in its master plan, Walker said.

Developer Flaum told the Rochester Business Journal last summer that he was impressed with the Seneca Nation’s ability to create partnerships that prosper a region’s economy and create jobs. Flaum has worked with the Seneca Nation in the past in an effort to build a casino in the Rochester area and in the Catskills.

Statewide casino plan
Casino construction as a way to boost economic development has been a hot issue across the state.

In November, voters approved a constitutional amendment that allows the state Legislature to authorize up to seven casinos in New York with goals of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenue generated.

Legislation signed last summer by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, however, limits the initial expansion to a total of four upstate casinos in three regions: the Hudson Valley-Catskills area, the Capital District-Saratoga area and the Central-Southern Tier. No additional destination gambling resorts would be licensed for at least seven years.

The state constitution previously prohibited private, non-Indian casino gambling. However, New York has five upstate casinos owned by Indian tribes and nine racinos at racetracks such as Finger Lakes Racetrack and Casino.

Cuomo and other supporters have maintained that gambling resorts would boost tourism and economic development while providing revenues to be shared by all localities statewide—for increased education aid or lower property taxes.

Late last year, slightly more than half of respondents to an RBJ Snap Poll opposed amending New York’s constitution to allow an expansion of casino gambling.

Snap Poll respondents opposed the constitutional amendment by 53 percent to 47 percent. A similar majority—55 percent—opposed having casino gambling in the city of Rochester or its suburbs.

The constitutional amendment spurred action by another local developer.

Wilmorite Inc. chairman Thomas Wilmot—who floated the idea of a casino in downtown Rochester several years ago—has proposed a $350 million project that includes a casino, hotel, restaurant and spa on 46 acres in Tyre, Seneca County.

According to Wilmorite, the casino would create 1,800 permanent jobs and generate $7.8 million annually for the town and county to share.

Walker believes the market is big enough to accommodate the additional facilities.

“There is substantial room for growth,” she said.

3/14/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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