Urban designers have long bemoaned the lackluster entrance gateway of the Seneca Niagara Hotel & Casino, currently a sunken parking lot fronting Third Street at Old Falls Street, in the heart of downtown. The parcel is seen as a pivotal crux in the development of the two commercial corridors, where urban planners have long tried to direct pedestrian patterns coming from the State Park.
Those who would like to see the Seneca Niagara Casino increasingly become an internationally renowned destination gaming venue on par with anything in Las Vegas or Macau, see the Casino’s entrance visual proof of mediocrity.
“We have millions of tourists walking around the State Park every season, a mere three block stroll down Old Falls Street. Imagine the revenue growth at the Casino if it built out a more compelling entrance gateway that draws people onto the property,” a longtime political observer postulates. “Let’s do something here that would be seen as respectable if it were located on the Vegas strip.”
The parcel is located on the Seneca Nation’s sovereign territory and is therefore regulated by the Nation’s 16-member elected Council. It sits adjacent to Seneca Gaming’s corporate headquarters. The Nation is not subject to taxation by New York State and does not currently levy tribal taxes on alcohol or retail sales.
Seneca Gaming’s new CEO Holly Gagnon is being prodded to advance a development project at the site, perhaps an inviting pedestrian-oriented cluster of one and two-story restaurant structures, symmetrically aligned around narrow pedestrian alleys and a central pedestrian square for seasonal vending tents and a bandstand for outdoor performances.
Internal Seneca politics is notoriously raucous, and advancing any development project of such scale would be rife with politics that spans far beyond Seneca borders.
The Nation would benefit from being exempt from City zoning and building regulations, which could otherwise prevent innovative spatial design patterns that encourage tourists to wander and explore. Even more importantly, the Nation is able to avoid a City Hall that has doomed many economic development projects, often on contrived and frivolous grounds. One well-known official’s adverse posture towards proposed buildings with more than four stories was seen for many years as a premise against which to leverage graft.
Tribal politics could be more complicated, but many opportunities to make the project politically popular among Senecas are obvious. Urban designers think that 10 restaurants could fit comfortably on the site, along with 18 to 20 seasonal vending tents.
The awarding of those potentially lucrative operating contracts and/or lease opportunities could be tendered by the Council (or the gaming corporation) with preference given to Seneca entrepreneurs — something that could make the development quite popular among the Nation’s legislators.
Albany would have no ability to prevent the development, which could come with a price tag between $50 million and $60 million. The Nation is easily capable of self-financing the construction.
But Seneca Gaming may have other projects on the front burner.
The Supreme Court has recently overturned the federal ban on sports betting, allowing States to regulate the activity. Given that tribal governments are not subject to state laws, the Seneca Nation could preempt the rest of New York with sports betting parlors and online gaming platforms.
While that first-mover advantage is a quickly diminishing window of opportunity, the corporation is highly capable of advancing new growth drivers on a great many fronts.