There is something in the wind these days that could deliver another crippling blow to businesses in struggling downtown Niagara Falls before too long and at this point, anyway, it is hard to know which way the wind is going to blow on the potential threat.
Here it is in a nutshell: The Seneca Gaming Corporation has solicited proposals through an RFP process for the planning and design of an upscale convenience store and gas station at 621 Niagara St. and the adjacent lot at 765 Niagara. In other words, from the casino parking ramp all the way to Sixth St.
The Niagara Reporter has obtained a copy of the RFP’s that were issued by the Seneca Gaming Corporation’s Procurement Department last May 21 with a return date of June 15th. It is not known how many firms have responded to the solicitation and Seneca Gaming officials did not return phone calls made by the Reporter over the weekend.
It is not immediately clear if the Seneca Gaming Corporation would be in violation of the 2002 gaming compact with the state if it opened up a gas station and convenience store on casino property. A clause in the compact reads the Seneca Nation would be authorized to conduct “any form of Class III Gaming on Nation lands pursuant to this Compact; provided, however, that this Compact shall apply to operation of such enterprise, business or activity only to the extent that such operations are directly related to Class III Gaming undertaken by the Nation pursuant to this Compact.”
Would a gas station and convenience store outside the casino be directly related to Class III gaming? That could be open to interpretation, according to some legal experts, but a former Niagara Falls elected official who was in office at the time of the compact negotiations, says the language is vague.
“I was there (2002) when Seneca leaders said they would never open a smoke shop or gas station on their property,” says former Council Member Vince Anello who went on to serve as mayor. “There was supposed to be language in the compact prohibiting it. But the interpretation of the language can be pretty elastic. It is hard to say if it is or is not prohibited.”
The request for proposals for a gas station and convenience store comes as the state and the Senecas are locked in a bitter fight over gaming rights that has caused the Nation to withhold payments of gaming revenue to the state since 2009. The Seneca Nation maintains that under the 2002 compact, it has exclusive gambling rights in the 14 counties in Western New York and has withheld payments to the state from its casinos in Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Salamanca in protest over the video lottery terminals at Batavia Downs, Buffalo Raceway, and Finger Lakes Gaming and Raceway.
As a result of the continuing impasse which has gone to arbitration, the cities have not received their cut of the casino revenues, a $58 million budget shortfall for Niagara Falls that has put the city at serious financial risk. Is the gas station plan a trump card for the Seneca Nation in the ongoing fight?
“It [gas station] might be one way for the Senecas to make up for lost ground in the gambling fight,” said John Destino, a former mayoral candidate in Niagara Falls who is challenging State Sen. George Maziarz in a Republican primary in the 62nd District. “In the fight over exclusivity, they may be making the next move. Small businesses would be hurt most if they go through with it.”
In the RFP, Seneca says “the goal is not only to enhance and diversify” revenue, but to provide its customers “with a convenient and efficient option to purchase gasoline, cigarettes, convenience foods or other items. Gourmet coffee and eventual beer sales will also need to be considered.”
The RFP also notes that Seneca Gaming Corporation “is a governmental instrumentality of the Seneca Nation of Indians and will provide a New York State tax exemption certificate issued in the name of the Seneca Nation of Indians, as applicable.”
Niagara Falls Council Member Glenn Choolokian says if the Nation opens a gas station and convenience store on casino property, “It will be another nail in our coffin. They are going to destroy local businesses here. It’s terrible. We have not got our money in three years and the casino is still open. They are probably making a million a day. The state is making a ton of money off their video terminals. Meantime, Niagara Falls is sitting here and the administration is doing nothing aggressive.”
Choolokian said if he had the call, he would rip up the roads in front of the State Park and the casino and say, “we’re so broke here, there’s nothing we can do about it. If we did that, see how fast they would sit down and want to talk about that… but we sit here powerless and broke. Funny, the state just gave Niagara Falls State Park $25 million but they won’t give us our share.”
The Seneca Gaming Corporation’s RFP set the money threshold for the winning vendor at $2.999 million for all fees, billings, and requests for reimbursements. Bidders who are considered high-ranking contenders for the contract may be asked for additional information to verify their financial stability and other pertinent questions to “validate the viability of a business relationship.”