Seneca Gaming CEO Holly Gagnon should have green-lighted a different Niagara expansion project, say critics

Last fall the Seneca Gaming Corporation, under the direction of CEO Holly Gagnon, greenlighted a $40 million renovation plan to what is, ostensibly, the front entrance to the venue, Sixth Street and the Seneca Niagara Casino’s access road to  Daily Boulevard.

Most Western New Yorkers, despite approaching the Casino from that direction, consider that the back of the building. Area developers are puzzled by her decision to invest such a large sum to reconfigure what they consider the backdoor of the venue and question the business motive.

“It doesn’t generate any new revenue or add any new square footage to the venue,” explains one local developer who owns property nearby.  “That money could have financed a substantive expansion project with a better return for the gaming corporation, and a greater economic development impact for downtown.”

The east entrance to the Casino faces an undeveloped 140-acre parcel of land owned by Manhattan billionaire Howard Milstein.  The section of the city is devoid of pedestrian traffic, and Milstein has no intention to develop his speculative holdings.  It’s unclear why this was the focal point of a $40 million ‘arrival experience’ planned by the Seneca Gaming Corporation.

At the same time, the Seneca Gaming Corporation pushed for the project, likely at the behest of the Nation’s construction company (a subsidiary of Seneca Holdings that was eager to book new revenue from its principal client), others wanted the project to focus on renovating what most Western New Yorker’s consider the Casino’s front door: Fourth Street at Old Falls Street.

For decades local urban planners have identified the intersection at Third Street and Old Falls Street as the crux of two commercial districts that form the heart of the City’s tourist district.  Scores of public projects — including the removal of the former Wintergarden — have been pursued to restore pedestrian traffic along these two streets.

Yet at this crux of Downtown Niagara Fall’s redevelopment, the Seneca Nation sits as a capable but unwilling partner that would rather spend $40 million fixing up the back door than pursuing a project that could be transformational in the trajectory of the City’s tourism industry.

Old Falls Street is emerging as the heart of the tourism district.  Pedestrian traffic from the State Park is heavy during the summer season.

Prior to the Seneca Gaming Corporation’s decision to improve it’s ‘arrival experience’ local urban planners had advocated for a project located on the Casino’s below-grade parking lot, where pedestrians approach the venue.

Downtown Niagara Falls is largely devoid of nightlife, with no restaurant venues serving after 10:30 pm, and only two taverns — even at peak season on a weekend.  It’s long a been a point of shame for the local economic development community.

Despite the eight million visitors to Niagara Falls State Park every year, few visitors stay more than one night — largely because of the void in entertainment and nightlife venues downtown.  The remarkable contrast between Main Street and Clifton Hill couldn’t be starker. 

The vast parking fronting the Casino between Fourth and Third Streets has the potential to become a focal point to the City — downtown’s most central place — a town square that becomes inseparably entangled with the experience of Niagara Falls for visitors from around the world.

Too much of the site is occupied by underutilized roadways, and the awning of the Old Convention Center structure hovering over Fourth Street. Given that this is all sit’s on sovereign Seneca Nation territory, it goes without saying that this land is too valuable to leave sitting as a surface parking lot.

The Seneca Nation of Indians can sell merchandise that it manufacturers on its sovereign territories outside of the scope of State tax jurisdiction.  For some products, like tobacco or cannabis, the opportunities are obvious.  For other industires, the economics are not as pronounced.  In either event, this parcel could easily accommodate 200,000 square feet of retail space underground.
With densely built two-story structures, narrow streetscapes, inviting ally ways, and open-air overlooks to an underground level, the Nation can use compelling urban design to assert itself as the City’s most central place.
The striking piece of real estate sits as a void at the crux of two pedestrian districts, along Old Falls Street and Third Street.  It sits in front of the Seneca Niagara Casino.  Urban planners estimate that a compelling urban design could draw 3.5 million pedestrians to the property annually.
Urban designers cite San Francisco’s Pier 39 as a ‘low hanging’ business model that the Seneca Gaming Corporation could easily execute.  They argue that most tourist-oriented merchandising can be manufactured on sovereign territory — like t-shirts, coffee mugs, magnets, key chains, and embroidered hats.


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