|By Sharon Linstedt, The Buffalo News,
N.Y.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Sep. 21, 2007 - The Seneca Nation of Indians is weighing an expanded Buffalo Seneca Creek Casino that would include a luxury hotel -- boosting the price tag for the permanent gambling complex to more than $275 million.
A 200-plus-room luxury hotel has been added to the development, more than doubling the $125 million price tag announced in 2006, according to sources familiar with modifications in the Cobblestone District project.
The popularity of on-site hotels at the nation's Seneca Niagara and Seneca Allegany casinos -- with occupancy rates exceeding 90 percent -- led to the addition of a hotel in the initial phase of the Buffalo casino, sources said.
The enhanced casino/hotel plan is expected to receive final approval from the Seneca Tribal Council in the next few weeks. Preliminary site work for the massive project could begin this fall.
Seneca Gaming Corp. spokesman Philip J. Pantano declined to discuss any changes in plans for the Buffalo casino.
"The final plans for the permanent Buffalo Seneca Creek Casino have not been fully completed or approved at this time," Pantano said.
In June 2006, the Senecas unveiled designs for a gambling campus featuring a three-story casino, with room for 2,200 slot machines, 50 gambling tables and several restaurants, plus a five-story parking garage. While the Senecas indicated they would leave enough room on the site for a 17-story hotel, lodging was not part of the initial development.
Pantano did confirm there could be activity to prepare foundations on the site -- which is bounded by Michigan and South Park avenues, Marvin and Perry streets -- before the end of the year.
"Depending on our internal review and approvals, we would still like to get the preliminary digging done before winter," Pantano said.
The gaming corporation spokesman said an anti-casino lawsuit filed by Citizens for a Better Buffalo does not stand in the way of construction of a permanent casino on the nine-acre Buffalo site.
"Since neither the gaming corporation, nor the nation, are parties to the legal action, we cannot base our schedules and our decisions on matters we don't control," Pantano said. "Just as we built and opened our temporary facility, we will continue to focus on getting the permanent facility designed and built."
Joseph M. Finnerty, who this week announced he'll be stepping aside as lead attorney for the anti-casino suit to focus on First Amendment legal work, predicted the casino court battle will go for "many, many years."
While there's nothing stopping the Senecas from moving ahead on a permanent casino, it's a poor investment for them, said Dianne Bennett, who is part of the Citizens for a Better Buffalo lawsuit.
"Sure, they can move forward, but they are on notice that a case is pending and we expect to win it," Bennett said. "They can start building, but they'll never open the doors."
Ongoing litigation notwithstanding, the Senecas opened a 5,000-square-foot temporary casino on the site July 3. While opponents were displeased, there was no effort to obtain a court-ordered shutdown.
Through the end of August, the relatively tiny "slots-only" casino attracted 89,176 patrons. Demand has been so strong that its hours of operation were expanded in late August. The casino is now open from 8 a.m. to 4 a.m. daily, adding four hours a day to its original 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. schedule.
The Senecas also have reconfigured space inside the temporary gambling hall to boost the slot machine count from 119 to 135.
"It's extremely telling that a small temporary casino has shown such drawing power," Pantano said. "With the start of the hockey season, we expect to see even more traffic, and we believe this signals that the people of Buffalo and Western New York want this project to happen."
The hotel business has proven to be a perfect complement to Seneca gambling operations, with occupancy exceeding 90 percent most nights at both the Niagara Falls and Salamanca casinos.
In August, Seneca Gaming Chairman Barry E. Snyder Sr. confirmed plans to spend $130 million on a second hotel tower at Seneca Allegany. That 200- room tower is under design and is expected to join the existing 11-story, 212-room hotel complex in mid-2009.
Earlier this month, the AAA awarded its prestigious "Four Diamond" designation to the Seneca Niagara Hotel, which has 604 rooms and stands 26 stories tall. The Niagara Falls hotel and The Mansion on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo are the only Buffalo-area facilities with the designation, which the travel association confers to less than 4 percent of the properties it rates.
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