Senecas move toward new convention center 14 years after state gave away city convention center for casino 

It’s almost too funny. Back in 2002, the city handed its convention center over to the Seneca Nation of Indians, along with 52 acres of prime real estate in downtown Niagara Falls for one dollar.

Now, 14 years later, the Seneca’s development agency is proposing to build a new convention center and entertainment venue in downtown Niagara Falls, and outlined its master plan to more than a dozen state, county, city and town leaders.

All of their earnings from the venue will likely be tax free as are their current hotels, restaurants and gift shops in the casino compound.

The Senecas only pay a percentage of the net profit on slot machines to Albany. All other enterprises – gaming included – are tax free.

Meanwhile, a planned citywide reassessment is expected to increase property taxes for residents of Niagara Falls. Since 2009, the city has raised its annual expenditures by roughly $10 million a year while increasing its local tax levy by just a fraction of the amount.

Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster has plugged the gap by injecting revenue from the local share of the casino’s slot machine take into the general fund, a fiscal practice endangered now by the dwindling amount of casino cash the city receives each year.

In addition to the convention center, the Senecas plan to put a 24-pump gas station on Seneca Niagara Casino property that will most likely bankrupt existing, American owned gas stations downtown. Because the Seneca do not have to pay taxes – property, sales or gasoline taxes  — they can sell gasoline cheaper than their taxpaying competitors.

Native American cigarettes, also untaxed, will be available at the gas station, which will put the hurt on existing convenience store operators as well.

These bombshells and more were contained in a master plan that Sean Caffery, chief executive officer of Seneca Development, with local officials at the county Industrial Development Agency headquarters.

“It’s a place that can be completely transformed,” he said of downtown Niagara Falls, the deteriorating ghetto that surrounds the casino. “There’s enormous interest.”

For the record, Mayor Paul Dyster said he didn’t think the Senecas were allowed to open a gas station.  The state had made it clear in 2012 that a gas station was not in keeping with the Gaming Compact between the state and the Seneca Nation, Mayor Paul Dyster told The Buffalo News. That station would place local businesses at a “competitive disadvantage,” he said.

Caffery countered by saying that gasoline would be offered at “market rate,” whatever that is.

“There’s a tremendous need for gas,” said Caffery. “There was major demand by our clientele as well as the people coming into the area.”

Niagara Falls Redevelopment (NFR) owns 142 acres of undeveloped land adjacent to the Seneca Niagara property. The footprint downtown is nearly three times the 52 acres that the Senecas own. The company has done nothing with the property since it began acquiring it in the late 1990s.

But Caffery said that the proposed new convention center would likely have to be located on property currently owned by NFR. Assemblyman John Ceretto said the company’s cooperation would be central to the plan moving forward.

“If we don’t try with the person who owns the property, then there’s no discussion,” Ceretto said.

Discussion or no, the state has previously invoked eminent domain on behalf of the Senecas in Niagara Falls, seizing private property, paying the rightful owners what it determines to be “fair market value” and turning the land over to the Indians, based on some pressing need.

“Our gaming corporation has identified this as a major need for the city,” Caffery said of a new convention center. With potential costs running as high as $250 million, an outside developer would be brought in to bankroll the project, he added.

Ceretto said a letter was being sent to NFR owner Howard Milstein and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo encouraging the developer to work on behalf of what Ceretto characterized as the best interest of the city. Milstein served under Cuomo as Thruway Authority and Canal Corp. Chairman from 2011 to 2014 before resigning due to “business interests.”

“As far as moving forward,” Ceretto said, “(the Seneca Nation is) exploring the development of the area around the casino and also developing on Howard Milstein’s property,” he said.

The delicious irony in the Seneca proposal to build a convention center when it is their very presence in Niagara Falls that deprived the city of a convention center in the first place was not lost on commentators to the various Niagara Falls forums on Facebook.

“We need a convention center because we gave ours away? Makes sense. They didn’t build any housing for employees downtown, which if I remember correctly was part of the casino deal in the first place,” wrote Davin Strong. “I don’t think that when we were told that the casino would revitalize downtown, what they meant was the surrounding area would continue to crumble until it was cheap enough for the Seneca Nation to buy it all.

Alisa J. Pucci concurred.

“I know we keep getting money but we should have had them build our convention center FIRST, before we gave away ours?” Pucci asked rhetorically. “I wonder why no one is saying anything from the city on this. Why do we always get suckered into BAD deals. What is in it for the POLITICANS? I would like to find out?”

Michael Murphy Pitarresi pointed out that, back in 2001, it was promised that no Seneca gas stations or smoke shops would be a part of the casino package.

“I remember clearly that Native gas stations and smoke shops were not to be allowed downtown,” Pitarresi wrote. “Now it is becoming a great thing and a done deal? The State of New York, Cuomo, Milstein and the Senecas all screwed the citizens of Niagara Falls and this area so badly in the “legalized casino gambling” deal. This is just insult to injury!”

Ceretto remained upbeat.

“I hear partnerships. I hear economic development. I hear things like that,” Ceretto said. “It’s all positive stuff. We’re discussing the future of Niagara Falls.” 



Niagara Falls once had a convention center which helped support tourism in the shoulder season [fall and spring]. It was given away to the Senecas for $1.

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The Senecas were supposed to build a casino and use the old convention center temporarily. Instead they found it advantageous to remodel the convention center into the casino.

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