New Train, Casino Entertainment Complex For Niagara Falls (Ont.)

Five proponents will bid for the right to build a new entertainment complex servicing the city’s two casinos.

Five proponents will bid for the right to build a new entertainment complex servicing the city’s two casinos.

Don’t look now, the Canadians are coming.

As the city’s share of slot machine revenue from the Seneca Niagara Casino continues to plummet, and Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster struggles unsuccessfully to get Amtrak, Greyhound, U.S. Customs, the Underground Railroad Heritage Commission or quite literally anyone to rent space in the $44 million “intermodal transportation center” he’s built on Whirlpool Street, our neighbors to the north delivered a one-two punch last week that may put our fair city even more on the ropes than it already is.

First, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission selected five Canadian firms to bid on developing the long-awaited entertainment complex for its two Niagara Falls, Ont., casinos.

Requests for proposals were sent to: Falls Community Partners, Golden Horseshoe Partners, Niagara Falls Entertainment Partners, Niagara Falls LIVE! and Niagara Theatre Partners. All five have direct ties to the Niagara Falls and Southern Ontario development industry as well as global connections.

The bids will focus on developing a 5,000-seat to 7,000-seat entertainment complex that would service not only patrons of Fallsview Casino Resort and Casino Niagara, but the entire region including those in both Southern Ontario and the immediate Buffalo Niagara region.

The venue, which would be used primarily for concerts and special events could also be able to host ice shows, boxing events and maybe even an Ontario Hockey League team, officials said. It would replace the 1,500-seat Avalon Ballroom in Fallsview Casino, which is considered too small by entertainment industry standards.

RFP terms dictate the venue may be located within the footprint of either casino and must include “direct and physical connection” to the gaming rooms.

Bringing a venue of that size to Niagara Falls would help fill in one of the missing pieces in its entertainment options and further cement its position as a major destination.

The facility would provide customers at Fallsview Casino Resort and Casino Niagara with an entertainment experience that is similar to what is offered at other resort casinos in Ontario, like Caesars Windsor and Casino Rama.

Entertainment has become a significant factor in driving visitors to casinos, helping to build brand awareness and generating incremental gaming revenue. Non-gaming amenities are increasingly important for customers and are essential in competitive, tourism-driven environments like Niagara Falls.

Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. officials say they hope to name a designated developer by November and have the venue open by 2019.

The OLGC announcement is the second significant detail for Niagara Falls in recent days designed to boost tourism in the region. Ontario provincial officials said the long-coveted direct GO Train service between Niagara Falls and Toronto will begin by 2023, at the latest.

GO Transit is the regional public transit service for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, with routes extending to communities across southern Ontario. The trains carry over 65 million passengers a year.

Since May 1967, GO Transit has evolved from a single GO Train line along Lake Ontario’s shoreline into an extensive network of train lines and bus routes. Since service began, more than a billion riders have taken the GO Train or bus – to work or school, to go home, or for leisure activities. GO provides its passengers with safe, fast, reliable, comfortable service to downtown Toronto and other urban centers.

Niagara Falls, Ont., currently welcomes more than 14 million visitors annually and direct GO Train service to Toronto will help see that number balloon, tourism officials said.

Meanwhile, on this side of the river, the local share of slot machine revenue the city gets from the Seneca Niagara Casino has plummeted from a high of nearly $22 million in 2011 to less than $17 million last year.

Will a major entertainment venue linked to the two casinos in Niagara Falls, Ont., cut into that even further? You bet.

The primary reason for the precipitous drop in casino revenue here has been the competition from Canada, Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as casinos downstate, where as many as five new ones are currently being planned and built.

When the Seneca Niagara Casino opened, tour buses arrived every 15 minutes or half hour to drop of gamblers from Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York cities such as Rochester and Syracuse.

Today, those places have their own casinos or casinos easier to reach, and the tour buses have become a rarity. A quick visit to the city’s former convention center, gifted to the Seneca by the state for use as the casino, will reveal that the vast majority of gamblers pressing the slot machine buttons are Niagara County residents.

The loss of the convention center itself has had an incalculable impact on the fiber of the city. Now the city makes do with a small, state operated “conference center,” big enough to host large weddings or minor league boxing events.

And while the GO Train and its direct service between Toronto and Niagara Falls, Ont., is a reality, Dyster has spent $44 million – including substantial casino revenue — on his train station here, that remains largely a pipe dream.

No contracts have been signed with any tenants for the white elephant on Whirlpool Street, and Amtrak has not agreed to service it. The facility is ten times larger than what the railroad’s published standards require for the number of passengers who use a train to get to or depart from the city, and it is Amtrak policy not to rent any more space than it actually needs.

The good people of Niagara Falls, New York, have seen fit to elect and reelect Dyster three times in a row. Their loyalty has been rewarded with the opportunity to live in the most dangerous and highly taxed city in the state, and the least friendly to senior citizens spot in the entire country (See related story).

Taxes are about to spike again with the reassessment, the state has been called in to try to get a reign on out of control spending (See related story) and nearly $200 million in casino revenue has been squandered.

You get what you pay for, and before Dyster’s current term is over, the chickens will have come home to roost.

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