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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Casino's local benefits come up short


The more I talk to Bill Thompson, the harder I root for Joel Rose.

Thompson knows more about casinos than anybody this side of Donald Trump. The University of Nevada professor has spent a professional lifetime separating winners from losers in the gambling business.

Joel Rose heads the anti-casino group that will sue to stop the Seneca Nation from building a casino on the downtown waterfront, likely in the vacant DL&W Terminal.

Rose and his followers think little good for us will come of it. Thompson, the casino expert, agrees.

"The winners," Thompson said, "are the Senecas and [George] Pataki."

There are ways in which casinos work for communities: When most gamblers come from outside the region, stay a few days, leave money behind and the host city keeps a lot of the lucre.

Instead, we get the worst of all casino worlds: Mostly local gamblers who don't linger long, with massive profits going to a sovereign nation and Buffalo left with pocket change. It doesn't help the local economy, it hurts it.

Rose & Co. think they can stop it. If they can't, our so-called representatives in Albany ought to at least send more of the casino dough our way.

The casino will make about $150 million in its first year, the bulk of it going to the Senecas. Most of the money will come at our expense, because Buffalo is no tourist mecca. "About 80 percent of the people who will gamble at a Buffalo casino live within 50 miles of Buffalo," Thompson said. "The casino will make a lot of money, but it will come [mainly] from Western New York pockets."

Because most of the $150 million will be dropped by local folks, it amounts to a self-imposed tax. The irony curls your Ben Franklins: The idea of forking over another $108 million last year in sales tax sparked a citizen revolt. A Seneca casino in Buffalo will put a similar hole in local pockets - and the mayor leads the cheers.

I don't have anything against the Senecas. They got a great deal, cut years ago with the governor. It was rubber-stamped by the same Albany lawmakers who blocked the private casinos that would have done cities like Buffalo far more good. The Senecas are only taking what politicians who are supposed to watch our backs gave them. Unless the same state lawmakers give Buffalo a bigger cut of Albany's take, which they can do, the casino will suck more money out of Buffalo than it puts back.

Granted, it's not like we get nothing. The casino brings about 1,000 jobs (although at a cost of some existing jobs), with those workers taking home about $25 million a year. The state gets about $30 million of the annual casino profits, with the city and county splitting about $7 million of that.

But $25 million in take-home pay and a $7 million local cut doesn't balance the nearly $150 million we'll pay for it.

As for development around the casino, Thompson said don't hold your breath.

"The number one casino spinoff business is a gas station," Thompson said. "Maybe a restaurant within walking distance . . . Most people going to the casino won't do a single thing in Buffalo other than gamble."

Add it up, and you understand why Joel Rose and friends want to stop it. Add it up, and you understand why Thompson - if the casino comes - thinks the state should fork over its entire cut to Buffalo.

"It's Buffalo that needs that money," Thompson said of Albany's $30 million share. "Buffalo doesn't need to send [casino] dollars to Albany that will then go to Westchester and New York City. The state should let the local governments keep it all."

Instead, we get pocket change after having our pockets picked. As they say at the blackjack table: Hit me.


e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com


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