The Seneca Gaming Corporation has been poorly served by a succession of largely unimpressive CEOs. They got by longer than they should have because an exclusivity agreement with New York State made profitability certain and lackluster performance harder to recognize. Since its establishment in 2001, the corporation has been loosely managed but wildly profitable.
The board of directors is appointed by the Seneca Nation Council, and since 2010 the President of the Nation has been banned from simultaneously serving as Chairman of the gaming corporation after governance concerns were raised. Six term Seneca President Barry Snyder is the current Chairman. Kevin Seneca, a longtime player in the tobacco industry, is the Vice Chairman.
The CEO position has been vacant since January, while Snyder has been playing an active management role. The Chief Operating Officer, Chief Financial Officer, and General Counsel are reporting directly to the board.
The gaming corporation’s last CEO was a former regulator from the New Jersey Gaming Regulatory Commission. Cathy Walker served five years before being dismissed in January earlier this year, shortly after Snyder became Chairman. Walker was an attorney who lacked entrepreneurial instincts that would have made for more successful venues. Critics point to the entrance of the Niagara Falls casino — a submerged parking lot in front of Falls Street that has remained vacant and unattractive for years — as evidence of Walker’s leadership shortcomings.
“Go to Vegas and look at the entrance of those casinos,” says the critic. “That she didn’t see the potential of that space as a public square, storefronts, and active outdoor entertainment spaces is really telling as to the caliber of her leadership. The Nation, and the City of Niagara Falls have been poorly served.”
Walker was also criticized for “standing down on the Seneca Nation’s rights” while the corporation had been defrauded by Delaware North Companies for several years. A CEO who understood federal Indian law would have mobilized a team of lawyers and public relations experts. A CEO who understood the political landscape in Albany and DC and would have called for an investigation by Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
With that kind of strategic positioning, the gaming corporation could have had Delaware North’s illegal casinos shut down, secured a far more lucrative extension of the gaming compact, and retained the $600 million in accumulated revenue sharing payments that were withheld during the dispute.
The socio-political predicament requires that the corporation’s next CEO understands the evolution of federal Indian law and is a student of indigenous political theory who thinks with these colonial constructs as much he thinks against them.
A strong CEO at Seneca Gaming would be great for Niagara Falls
Those who follow Niagara Falls development and politics agree that a dynamic CEO at the helm of Seneca Gaming is needed to drive the revival of Niagara Falls. The city’s elected leadership has been floundering for decades, resource strapped and lacking vision. The city’s private sector has been oriented around government subsidies and real estate interests have been slow to invest.
The Seneca Nation has a profound longterm interest in developing the city into a global tourism destination, and they have the resources and bully pulpit to architect the vision, catalyze development, and advance the agenda. The Nation has been downtown Niagara Falls’ most influential developer in the last decade and has been stabilizing force for a struggling city.
The next CEO of the gaming corporation will play a pivotal role shaping the full buildout of the Nation’s 50-acre territory. How that territory will interact with surrounding neighborhoods could take many forms. It would be wise for the Nation to select a CEO with an understanding of urban planning and design. There is no understating the importance of vision in an executive. That person will decide if downtown Niagara Falls becomes a thriving entertainment district or a sad sea of parking lots.
Political skill sets required
One of Cathy Walker’s most noticeable shortcomings was her ignorance related to the regional political landscape. It’s hard to believe, but in an industry as politically contingent as hers, that she didn’t involve herself in state or local politics. It should be considered an essential job function.
The next gaming CEO should have a deep familiarity with the local political landscape, understanding the intricacies of how districts are drawn and what constituencies are important to whom. As importantly, the executive must understand the personalities and paranoias that motivate our local elected officials so that they can be easily mobilized and tasked with objectives.
And there are many objectives to task: removing waterfront highways, rebuilding pedestrian oriented streetscapes, relocating factories, shutting down landfills, improving access to the Niagara Gorge and making the state park the most beautifully landscaped in the world.
An exceptionally charismatic person who could navigate the regional, state, and tribal politics simultaneously would be ideal. An ability to articulate indigenous sovereignty to non-Native audiences and other governments would be valuable for the gaming corporation’s brand and the Seneca Nation’s public image.
A strong hand has been underplayed
The Seneca Nation should have enormous political clout in Western New York, but the hand is underplayed. Often, it’s a result of short two year presidencies, abrupt leadership transitions, squabbling factions on the tribal council, and a self dealing orientation that distracts from long term business development.
A CEO with political instincts could leverage the gaming corporation’s multi-million dollar annual advertising buys — and insist that the advertising placement generates content conducive to positive public consciousness of the Nation, it’s treaty rights, and tribal jurisdiction.
It’s the kind of influence that could have helped to shape the narrative around changing the name of Squaw Island or the Lancaster mascot controversy, and using the media to educate non-Native audiences. It’s the kind of influence that would be pivotal in disputes with the Governor and tactically valuable in branding and business relationships.
But the Nation has had a difficult time leveraging those relationships for legislative movement, investment dollars for Niagara Falls, or needed infrastructure for the Nation itself. With a gaming corporation that was comfortable throwing around its political weight, the Nation’s agenda would be more swiftly advanced.
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