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By Ron Churchill

The Seneca Nation leadership says "everyone is going to get hurt" if the nation doesn't keep its monopoly on casino gambling, and they claim in a poll -- the validity of which has been challenged by this publication -- that 84 percent of Western New Yorkers "favored continued operation of Seneca Nation gaming in its Western New York exclusivity zone."

So why did Gov. Andrew Cuomo include commercial casino gambling as a way to address deficit woes in his economic development package released Dec. 4?

Local business leaders seem excited about the possibility of legalized commercial gambling in Niagara Falls and some question the fairness of the Seneca downtown tax-free zone.

Las Vegas-style gambling for the private sector?

"I'd love to see that happen," said Dominic Colucci, part-owner of the Como Restaurant on Pine Avenue. "We've already got gambling. Allowing just the Native Americans to have it all is not worth it anymore. If you open the gaming up to not just (the Seneca Nation), I think Niagara Falls could really start to boom again."

"Are you aware of the fact that some Albany leaders want to legalize commercial casino gambling statewide?" the Seneca poll asked 1,000 Western New Yorkers.

The gaming compact between the Seneca Nation and the state, which gives the Seneca exclusive rights to gambling in Western New York, is up for renegotiation in 2016.

Legalizing non-Seneca or American-owned commercial gambling would require a constitutional amendment that would have to be approved by two consecutive legislative bodies and be passed by a statewide vote.

There is currently no legislation for such an amendment.

State Sen. George D. Maziarz, when asked for his opinion on the matter, said, "I have supported the referendum in the past."

Last week, the Seneca -- after a year-old request by the state -- agreed to binding arbitration to settle the $350 million in casino revenue-sharing they began withholding in 2009, claiming the terms of their monopoly are being violated by so-called "racinos" -- like the one at Hamburg Casino at the Fairgrounds -- that operate slot machines. More than $50 million is owed to the city of Niagara Falls.

And meanwhile...

No taxes.

That's what American-owned, non-Seneca businesses have to compete against in the city of Niagara Falls.

On their 50-acre grant of land in the heart of downtown, the Seneca enjoy tax-free status on their 604-room hotel, along with all their many retail stores and restaurants.

The Seneca do not pay sales, state income or property taxes, which gives them up to an estimated 30 percent edge on non-Seneca businesses.

"Obviously, it's not a level playing field," Colucci said. "And that's just the tax part of it. They allow smoking there, for example, which is a big draw for some customers."

The Como, specializing in old-world Italian cuisine, was founded in 1927 and is owned by the Colucci and Antonacci families.

It is pitted against tax-free Seneca restaurants like La Cascata, the Italian restaurant on the Seneca grant, along with Three Sisters, The Western Door, The Blues, and other tax-free Seneca eating establishments.

"When one place pays taxes and another place doesn't, (it creates an unfair advantage)," Colucci said. "That's a no-brainer."

He added that he worries more about the smaller businesses, including bars and restaurants, that are hurt by the tilted tables.

On Niagara Street, The Arterial Lounge, The Press Box and Frank's Bar have gone out of business, and on Third Street, Cafe Etc. and Shadow have closed their doors -- all of them near the very boundaries of the Seneca casino, proving that the spin-off promised in return for the unlevel playing field and Seneca gaming monopoly has, after 10 years, produced not more but less business.

The area surrounding the casino outside the Seneca 50 acres looks like a ghost town.

Reporter Publisher Frank Parlato Jr., a longtime critic of the 50-acre grant and the state giving Seneca legal preferences over Americans, said, "The same guys in Albany that made us the highest-taxed people in the nation are giving the Seneca a tax-free ride right in the middle of downtown to compete against us simply because of their blood line. This is not a historic Indian reservation, which I could respect. The land was pulled out of America in 2002 and suddenly given to a foreign nation -- as a trick of truth -- to get around the New York State Constitution, which says that New Yorkers can't gamble in New York state. So they made part of New York state a 'foreign country,' so New Yorkers could gamble in New York state."

Parlato, who says he has "frequently been accused of being a 'bigot' by those whose racial preferences I have challenged," added, "Albany created a preference -- a legal form of racial discrimination against the people of New York who elected them. I don't blame the Seneca for taking the legal preference and the business monopoly, but it is representative of the poorest form of governance that it delivers to foreigners -- a sovereign nation -- what it cannot deliver to its own people. In the end, the result is racist. A person born Seneca has more legal rights in Niagara Falls than a white, black or brown American."

Whether or not most Niagara Falls business leaders and residents care if someone born Seneca has a legal advantage over them based on their race, it is true that most of the businesses contacted by the Reporter right here in Niagara Falls did not support the tax-free advantages Seneca has in their tax-free zone and the monopoly gaming rights.

Tony Farina, president of One Niagara, a major tourism center located near the falls, said, "I think it's difficult to compete (with Seneca businesses). It's not a balanced playing field. We've paid $650,000 in taxes over the past six years."

Farina added that Niagara Falls needs "a new beginning. We need to have an overall strategy ... get everyone on the same page."

He admitted that "a lot of jobs have been created" by the casino and its businesses and it serves as a good tourist attraction, but "it's kind of hurt the surrounding businesses."

Farina said he would support legalized commercial gambling.

"Let's face it, (the state is) in the gaming business now with the lottery," he said.

Tom Hanna owned Tommy Ryan's on Old Falls Street for 22 years, until closing it three years ago due to "a combination of different things."

He said, "The casino took some patrons away over the last five years," but there were other factors too.

He said he felt the casino "drained a lot of money out of the economy," and that tourists would go to the casino, gamble, and then say, "There's not much left in town, we'd better leave."

"It's like shooting fish in a barrel," Niagara Falls resident Chuck Colavecchia said of the Seneca businesses. "How can you compete with them? There are so many pluses they have going for them. That's been mentioned from the beginning. The fairness is not there, but the Senecas have that right, and they're doing big business."

Colavecchia, who was born and raised in Niagara Falls and works as a manager at a local car dealership, said, "I think that some people didn't think the casino was going to expand the way it did, with the retail shops and restaurants."

Doreen O'Connor, Chairman of the Board for the Convention and Visitors Bureau in the 1990s and a founding board member of the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp. in the 2000s, was a founding member of Coalition for Casino Gaming in 2000.

"The tourism industry has always fully supported casino gaming in Niagara Falls," O'Connor said. "I truly believe that (American-owned and Seneca) casinos are good for the industry as a whole."

One of O'Connor's businesses, Niagara Majestic Tours, a tour and transportation company, provided shuttle service for Seneca Niagara Casino employees for five years.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Dec. 20, 2011