A new mayor in Niagara Falls is likely to partner with local Indian Tribes

Democrat Bob Restaino is Mayor-elect.

Niagara Falls’ new Mayor-elect Bob Restaino is “very open” to new public partnerships with the Seneca Nation of Indians, and a half-dozen other local tribal communities, believing that a collaborative posture will accelerate new development projects both on- and off-sovereign territory, a source tells The Chronicle. 

That’s a radically uncommon posture for most American politicians, who tend to presuppose that a more hostile approach to Indian affairs makes for an easy political boogyman against whom to run for public office. 

Outgoing Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster has never been receptive to collaboration with the Seneca Nation throughout his twelve years in office, despite the Nation’s gaming corporation operating at the heart of the City’s tourist district.  Dyster deferred to Governor Andrew Cuomo on tribal relations.  Cuomo took a hostile tact with local Indian Tribes. 

It was driven, in large part, by Cuomo’s overzealousness. 

Some would even call it hubris. 

Early in his first term, Cuomo helped Delaware North and others defraud the Seneca Nation of gaming exclusivity rights that they had purchased in a 2002 compact with New York State, by authorizing slot machines at the firm’s casinos in Hamburg and Farmington. 

Despite years of tough talk and an often hostile posture towards tribal sovereignty, Cuomo signed a sweeping extension of the Seneca Nations’s gaming compact beyond its initial 2014 duration.  He did so without a provision that would have extended revenue sharing payments with host communities.

The Nation paid more than $1 billion in such exclusivity payments since 2002, without having meaningful gaming exclusivity for most of that period.  

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Niagara Falls residents blame Delaware North for the State’s dispute over exclusivity payments with the State of New York. Delaware North defrauded the Nation of exclusivity rights that it purchased in 2002.

Cuomo was, apparently, not involved closely enough with the negotiations to realize the deal that he signed, and the Seneca Nation is now bringing the issue to the federal courts.  An early opinion by District Court Judge William Skretney ruled in favor of the state, but observers find the ruling suspect and predict that it will be overturned on appeal.

“The lost years of possibility and partnership between the Nation and the City of Niagara Falls has been noticeable and tragic,” explains one Niagara Falls resident. “The lack of progress in the City, particularly in the immediate vicinity of the Seneca property, is heartbreaking.” 

It’s widely known that Seneca leadership has been openly disgusted with the way that City leaders have squandered a quarter-billion dollars in revenue sharing payments that the Senecas believed would be allocated towards rebuilding the City.  They feel as defrauded as the taxpayers themselves. 

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Governor Andrew Cuomo either did not read or did not understand the final version of the Compact extension that he signed with the late former Seneca Nation President Barry Snyder.

For Niagara Falls, Restaino’s new approach with local Tribal communities could spark the revival that was promised to our weary populace back in 2002.  It’s precisely the kind of locally-controlled, home-grown development that Western New York has been waiting for. 

Expansion of the Seneca Niagara Casino property

Political operatives expect that a Restaino administration would be open to discussing items of interest to the Seneca Nation’s investment companies, like an expansion of the Seneca Niagara Casino that includes tax-free retail experiences and new entertainment venues. The City and State would not have jurisdiction to regulate or tax those activities on sovereign Seneca territory (so long as the products are manufactured on sovereign territories).  

A looming change in federal policy on marijuana — something that has been expected of the Trump administration — would open the door for tribal governments to regulate the industry themselves.  When it happens, Niagara Falls might emerge as an Amsterdam-like destination, with Tribal governments leading the way in the slow-to-legalize State of New York.

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One Seneca Niagara expansion concept is being called “a less woody and more stylized version of Pier 39” in San Francisco.

“With the Seneca Nation property serving as an anchor of for the industry, imagine the coffee shops and hookah lounges that would soon pop up in the empty storefronts along Third and Main Streets,” he adds.  “It’s way better than empty storefronts.” 

At the crux of any Seneca Niagara expansion is the large surface parking lot that sits in front of the Casino’s west-facing entrance, abutting Old Falls Street and Third Street — the two commercial districts where pedestrian foot traffic is heaviest during tourist season. 

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Architects can imagine a multi-level open-air town center, with narrow streets at ground level and cavernous pedestrian streetscapes located below ground, but exposed to the streetscapes above with open roof plates. Architects estimate that nearly 200,000 square feet of retail, entertainment, and passive-use spaces can be accommodated below ground.

That lot is seen by the Senecas as an extraordinarily poor use of space on a sovereign territory that is only 50 acres and is shockingly underutilized.  The Nation has been looking to locate tax-free retail and amusement opportunities on the property, but the immunity from State sales taxes would only protect goods that are manufactured or assembled on sovereign territories. 

In recent years, the Nation has considered investing in an on-territory apparel manufacturing facility that would license various high-end brands, for the independent manufacture of their designer lines, such that they could then be sold on Seneca territories immune from State sales and excise taxes.  Those products could also be sold tax-free on the lands of other Tribes, too. 

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At ground level, narrow pedestrian alleyways and densely lined storefronts would draw pedestrians into the sovereign Seneca Niagara Territory from Old Falls and Third Streets. Once on the property, pedestrian visitors would find themselves lost in a multi-level streetscape with a seemingly endless number of crevasses to explore.

Such a facility could create 800 to 1,000 full time, year-round manufacturing jobs.  It would generate another 500 to 1,000 seasonal retail jobs.  It’s unknown whether the Seneca Nation and Restaino administration would cooperatively lobby the Congress so that the Nation could build that manufacturing facility in the City of Niagara Falls.  That would require moving that parcel into federal trust, in a city that badly needs livable wage jobs.

The Seneca Nation’s Cattaraugus Reservation — where independent entrepreneur-owned apparel licensing operations would undoubtedly emerge — is a community that could use those jobs, too.  The Territory is still reeling from the loss of hundreds of tobacco retailing jobs following the 2009 passage of the federal PACT Act.  That narrowly tailored law prevents cigarettes that are manufactured off-territory from being resold on-territory with the same tax immunity as if they were manufactured on-territory.

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Overhead walkways fashioned in historic wrought-iron styles would accommodate a second-level streetscape full of large scale restaurant venues. Such a large cluster of restaurants would undoubtedly make the property ground-zero for adult nightlife and dining in the City, where few restaurants are open beyond 10 pm, even during the peak of tourist season.  Nightlife is not an option that tourists currently have on this side of the border.

Indigenous Stewardship of New York State Park

Some political observers wonder if a Restaino administration will be open to the idea of inviting the Clan Mothers of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to act as Trustees of the Niagara Falls State Park. The Clan Mothers are the sovereign matriarchs of the Haudenosaunee people, the title holders of the Great Law of Peace and the keepers of the oldest still existant democracy in the world, founded in 1141 near Onondaga Lake.

Niagara Falls has been a destination of pilgrimage for indigenous people from across North America and plays a particularly central role in the Haudenosaunee creation story — for whom this heart of Turtle Island is the biblical equivalent of the Garden of Eden.

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Local indigenous groups and environmentalists have been advocating for a more eco-centric experience for visitors of the State Park. In recent years many have called for a removal of the park’s three vast surface parking lots, including two located on Goat Island. They also argue for the removal of unnecessary roadways that traverse the park, preferring to reforest much of those lands.

They imagine a parkscape of well-beaten dirt paths in which visitors can find themselves lost in the exploration of the geography, perhaps hiking for hours or days along trails that scale the length of the Niagara Gorge.

Given particular treaty rights codified in the Treaty of Navigation, Amity and Commerce — known more widely as the Jay Treaty — the Haudenosaunee have the right to conduct commerce along North America’s inland waterways and across its international boundary lines.

Indian law experts agree that the Haudenosaunee have the right to conduct tours inside and outside of the State Park– by boat or foot — in a way that is untaxed and unregulated by the State of New York. A cooperative Mayoral administration in Niagara Falls could make the logistics of getting new tour boats in the water that much easier.

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Indian guides are planning to launch canoe tours inside the Niagara Gorge, with prices starting as low as $120 per person during off-peak hours.

New gaming compacts with other local Indian Tribes 

Although it may take a Supreme Court decision to affirm it, revenue sharing has ended with the host municipalities, as per the State’s gaming compact with the Seneca Nation.  There is no longer a downside for the State to enter into new gaming compacts with other local Tribes, including the Tuscarora Nation, the Cayuga Nation, the Tonawanda Senecas, and Six Nations of the Grand River (all within a short drive of the City).

By allowing new Tribal casinos to open in Niagara Falls, it enhances the City’s draw as a hub of gaming and entertainment venues, which collectively would be likely to pull more cash flow from Ontario and foreign visitors.

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The administration of President Donald J. Trump has a receptive posture to authorizing off-reservation gaming venues under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, known as IGRA.

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