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The $200 million Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel Opens; 604 room Hotel
Expected to Redefine Downtown Niagara Falls

By Gail Norheim, The Buffalo News, N.Y.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 

NIAGARA FALLS - December 29, 2005 - - The Seneca Nation of Indians' new casino and hotel opens Friday amid high hopes that it will put an economic shine on the U.S. side of Niagara Falls. 

At 26 stories, it is 10 stories higher than the tallest hotel in Erie County. 

It has two restaurants, a bar and an event center that will present top-name entertainers, including Aretha Franklin, who will perform there New Year's Day. 

The total price tag of the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel - $200 million - is a bigger investment than the entire $150 million Life Sciences complex to be completed in Buffalo next year and the nearly $150 million in taxpayer-funded improvements to Ralph Wilson Stadium during the last decade. 

The hotel's new casino will bring the total Seneca gambling space in the Falls to nearly 150,000 square feet - roughly the size of three football fields. 

Backers say the hotel offers the first real competition to the flashy tourist attractions on the Canadian side of the Niagara River. 
Downtown Niagara Falls business leaders hope the hotel will inspire the kind of private development missing for decades. 

"We're starting to get a skyline now and we're starting to sprout up," said John Faso, general manager of the new Conference Center Niagara Falls, which faces the casino. "People have a focal point. This is Niagara Falls and things are starting to grow. I think it's a positive." 

But detractors are worried. Some see the hotel as Canadian commercialization of a natural wonder bleeding across the border. Others fear it will be the death knell for small American businesses nearby, and even prevent new ones from springing up. 

Local author and historian Paul Gromosiak said the focal point of visitors should remain the falls. He is upset over the bright lights that will be used along 19 stories of the new hotel to symbolize a single feather and water falling, and will be seen at night from as far away as Buffalo. 

"The feather is their symbol," Gromosiak said of the Senecas. "It's not to be lit up, to be seen for dozens of miles, and not to be used as a means for advertising." 

A difference in visitors 

All agree that the city will never be the same. A top tourism official predicts the hotel and casino will draw visitors who would not have come to the U.S. side of Niagara Falls before, including the curious from the Canadian side. 

"It's a beacon in many ways," said David Rosenwasser, president of the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. Rosenwasser said he believes guests at the hotel will likely be far different from the traditional sightseeing family attracted to Niagara Falls, N.Y. 

"The Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel is going to appeal to a more affluent clientele," he said. "We will be able to attract people to stay in the Falls who haven't been here, ever." 

The hotel's 604 rooms include 86 corner suites with whirlpool hot tubs and flat-screen TVs. The least-expensive room in the hotel is $100 a weeknight; $125 on a weekend. A one-bedroom suite costs $175 for the night. Casino spokesman Phil Pantano said those are the off-season rates. Summer rates will be set later this winter. The hotel is sold out for New Year's Eve. 

Rosenwasser, who had a tour last week, described the amenities as "well thought out" and "sumptuous." Rooms have high-speed Internet access, large vanity areas and pillow-top beds. He said those type of accommodations are exactly what the new conference center has needed to draw in larger groups, such as pharmaceutical and banking companies. 

"We're looking for more high-end rooms for more business types, where price isn't the issue," Rosenwasser said. "What they want is an amenities package." 

Hoteliers on the Ontario side of the border see the Seneca project as complementing their booming tourist trade. 

"The Seneca hotel can only grow the tourism market in the Niagara region," said Michael DiCienzo, vice president of design and development for Canadian Niagara Hotels, which owns three hotels and is building an indoor water park in Niagara Falls, Ont.  Since U.S. citizens represent about 60 percent of the tourist trade on the Ontario side, the Canadians hope many Seneca guests will cross the Rainbow Bridge and take in their attractions. 

On the U.S. side, many business owners say they are still waiting for the new customers they expected as a result of the Seneca Niagara Casino's opening on New Year's Eve 2002. Some hotel owners fear visitors will flock to the brightest, newest place, instead of their businesses. 

Locals at disadvantage 

The biggest problem local business owners see is that hotel-casino customers don't have to pay sales tax and they can smoke because the facilities are on sovereign land. That's tough competition for local bars and restaurants that are subject to the state ban on smoking in public places. 

Frank Strangio, whose family has run the Quality Inn on Niagara Falls Boulevard since 1992, calls the exemption from property, sales or hotel taxes unfair. 

"We're all for development when it's a level playing field, but when they have such a huge advantage it's unfair," Strangio said. 

Though their sovereignty protects them from taxes, the Seneca gambling compact requires the nation to pay the state 18 percent of slots revenues, a quarter of which goes to the host community or communities. The local share was $24 million for the last two years. 

Strangio estimated the Senecas have a 30 percent cost advantage on hotel competition. 

"That gives them the ability to charge a lesser price then we can," he said. "What we foresee is once the initial polish wears off they'll drop their prices to attract more people because they just need bodies . . . in their casino and restaurants. It's going to take people away from us." 

Barry E. Snyder Sr., president of the Seneca Nation of Indians, disagrees. He said 6 million people a year have visited the casino since it opened and the hotel and casino create more opportunity for all city businesses. 

"It provides undeniable evidence that there is positive, tangible economic development taking place on this side of the border," Snyder said. He said he hopes the hotel opening will encourage local business owners to step up what they have to offer. 

"We can now market our casino more aggressively to people traveling from farther distances, including gaming enthusiasts, business travelers and tourists," he said, "and offer them a world-class experience in an exciting and comfortable environment so they can enjoy the region for longer periods of time - days instead of hours." 

On the other side of the city, a hotel owner whose property is in walking distance of the casino said he welcomes the opening. 
David Fleck, owner of the Howard Johnson Motel on Main Street, predicts the influx of new visitors is likely to make downtown a more inviting place for visitors and developers. 

Fleck said he can offer his 80 rooms at a cheaper rate. He said his family has been in the hotel industry in the city for 50 years, and he is excited to see the opening of high-end hotels like the Senecas, as well as a planned renovation of the Holiday Inn Select on Third Street into a three-diamond Crowne Plaza Hotel. 

"These are the first two properties that have been to that level since the Cataract Hotel," which closed in the 1920s, he said. "There were some presidents who stayed there, and there's been nothing like that since." 

Bill Michelmore of the News Niagara Bureau contributed to this article. 

To see more of The Buffalo News, N.Y., or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to

Copyright (c) 2005, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

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