Senecas Say Damn The Torpedoes To Local Businesses, Full Speed Ahead!

by Mike Hudson

They said it couldn’t be done. Or, rather, they said it wouldn’t be done. When leaders of the Seneca Nation of Indians were gifted with 50 acres of prime real estate in the city’s tourist district, along with the multimillion dollar convention center for use as a casino that opened in 2002, they swore up and down that a tax free gas station and smoke shop just wasn’t in the cards.

For some odd reason, we here at the Niagara Falls Reporter didn’t believe them.

Late last month, the Senecas broke ground for their new gas station and smoke shop, on Niagara Street very near the site of the old Pizza Hut restaurant that was put out of business when the state gave the Seneca Nation the land.

Doesn’t that beat all?

“Determining the future use and development of our sovereign lands is the right and responsibility of the Seneca Nation,” said Mo John Sr., Seneca Nation president. “This project is in keeping with those sovereign rights as recognized by the federal government. Furthermore, we believe it can be a catalyst for additional development along the Niagara Street corridor.”

“We aim to be a good neighbor and a strong partner,” he added.

 Proposed site of the tax free Seneca gas station.

Proposed site of the tax free Seneca gas station.

Seneca Gaming Corp. head Barry Snyder, who was the nation’s president when the casino deal went down and swore by everything that is holy that no gas station / smoke shop was being contemplated, hailed the news.

Several factors, he said, including a strengthening local economy, played a role in deciding to build the retail outlet. Snyder pointed to several new private- and public-sector developments in Niagara Falls including new hotels and renovations to the state park.

“There is great opportunity now to establish the area on the east side of the Seneca Nation’s territory as a true gateway to the city,” Snyder said. “We’re happy to be taking this first step in that direction.”

The Niagara USA Chamber of Commerce, Niagara County’s leading business advocacy organization, has come out strongly against the plan to open the 24-bay gas station on sovereign land within the city of Niagara Falls.

“While we respect the rights of a sovereign nation, the negative impact that a tax-free gas station would have on local convenience stores, businesses and the city and county would be devastating,” a prepared statement from the organization stated.

Others are opposed as well.

Likely victims of the Seneca plan include the Star food Mart, which serves up gas and cigarettes at Fourth and Main, the Citgo Mart at Seventh and Main, the Mobile station at 10th and Pine and the Mobile station at 29thand Pine.

The 7-Eleven, almost right across the street at 402 Niagara St. and Andy’s Quick Stop at 18th and Niagara will also feel the effects of the cut rate cigarette trade.

And who will make the trek out to the Tuscarora smoke shops and gas stations such as Smokin’ Joes and Randy’s once bargain basement gas and smokes are available right in downtown Niagara Falls?

Originally, Seneca officials said they would sell gasoline and cigarettes at “competitive” rates. They’ve since modified this, but why is there any reason to believe anything they say when they said they weren’t going to open a gas station / smoke shop to begin with?

“There is nearly a $5 difference in the price of a pack of cigarettes between New York retailers and Native American smoke shops,” the Niagara USA Chamber’s statement read. “While the merits of New York’s tax policy can be debated, local retailers are caught in the middle. While they must comply with New York state regulations, their neighbor can conduct business virtually unimpeded by such burdensome regulations and taxes. This is simply unfair.”

Seneca wants more: After building a tax free casino and hotel with a cadre of tax free businesses inside the Seneca Nation is now building a tax free gas station and smoke shop in downtown Niagara Falls.

Seneca wants more: After building a tax free casino and hotel with a cadre of tax free businesses inside the Seneca Nation is now building a tax free gas station and smoke shop in downtown Niagara Falls.

They also can chop off 42 cents per gallon in New York State gasoline taxes – a hefty sum that will make competition impossible for American taxpaying gas station owners.

In 2012, the Seneca announced that they wanted to build a gas station and smoke shop, but were met by resistance from Albany. Howard Glaser, former director of state operations under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, wrote that such an operation would fall outside of the “traditionally associated with the operation or conduct of a casino.”

“This was the agreement that was bargained for by a Seneca delegation, signed on behalf of the Seneca Nation by (former) President Cyrus Schindler and ratified by referendum of the Seneca people,” Glaser wrote in 2012. “Regardless of any complex legal issues, I share the community’s deep concern about the potential impact on small business that the potential Seneca operation may have.”

The Seneca backed down, in what current tribal President Mo John now characterizes as a mistake.

Asked about the situation by the Niagara Gazette in March, Cuomo was circumspect, to say the least.

“We’re reviewing it now and we’re going to speak to all parties before we have an opinion,” Cuomo said.

No such opinion has yet been rendered, even though construction is proceeding apace.

Paul Poulos, 86, has owned the Star Food Mart on Main Street for 63 years.

“They’re going to drive more people down Niagara Street, but for who? Themselves?” Poulos said. “If it gets to that point, I’ll make my place into a parking lot.”

In a prepared statement, Jim Calvin, the president of the state Association of Convenience Stores, called the plan “a poke in the eye to struggling non-Indian retailers” and, in terms of economic development, a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

“The Senecas seek to monopolize the retail gasoline market in Niagara Falls with pump prices that are dramatically but artificially lower,” he said. “Cannibalizing an existing industry by thumbing one’s nose at state and local taxes and regulations should not be allowed to pass as positive economic growth for Niagara Falls or any other New York State community.”

Calvin estimated the sales tax loss at each gas station business would amount to a minimum of $250,000.

“That would mean forfeiting motor fuel tax revenue earmarked for maintenance and repair of roads and bridges across Western New York, as well as the loss of sales and jobs at surrounding non-Indian gas stations and convenience stores,” Calvin said.

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