Two Niagara Falls, Two Economic Results

Casino Niagara in Niagara Falls, Ontario and Seneca Niagara Casino in Niagara Falls, New York have taken different paths economically. The Ontario operation spurred billions of dollars in new construction since it opened in 1996. In New York, state law restricts how much revenue the Niagara Falls casino can take in.

They may be located in cities with the same name, but casinos in Niagara Falls, Ontario and Niagara Falls, New York have different tales to tell.

In Ontario, Councillor and former Mayor Wayne Thomson said, “Once the decision was made to open Casino Niagara, we had an explosion of high-rise development take place.” The casino opened in December 1996, and within five years the city considered $3 billion worth of building permits. In addition, in 2004, the luxury Fallsview Casino opened. He said the tourism industry in the city 36,000 jobs.

Thomson notes casinos alone are not enough for economic development, but they helped attract a huge indoor water park, museums and more. He said New York should consider taking the same approach because its casinos did not bring development like they did in Ontario. “I think they’ve got to concentrate on trying to bring some first-class attractions to that area,” Thomson said, noting leaders are taking Niagara Falls, New York in the right direction now.

Mayor Paul Dyster said he did not support the Seneca Niagara Casino when it was built in 2002 in the former Niagara Falls Convention Center.

“We were creating a large revenue generator in the middle of an otherwise very poor city. I thought the benefits being touted were overblown,” Dyster said.

The casino, hotel and restaurants on 52 acres downtown have taken in billions of dollars. But under the compact between the Seneca Nation and New York, the state receives 25 percent of only the casino’s slot revenues. The city gets 25 percent of that, or $183 million since the casino opened. But under the deal, the city shares its 25 percent with numerous other entities, including Niagara Falls Memorial Hospital, the city school district and the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation. As a result the city’s actual take has been $132 million.

Still, Dyster said, “I would say on balance has it been a benefit for us to have the casino.” City Controller Maria Brown added, “The city of Niagara Falls, even with the loss of sales tax revenue, I think is ahead. That’s my personal opinion. There was a time when I was here when we didn’t have any money at all to do anything.”

Brown would like to use casino revenue to help lower personal property taxes, but state laws define how casino funds may be used. In Niagara Falls, instead of providing direct property tax relief, casino revenue has helped fund public housing projects, the new culinary institute and a new train station. Also it has been used to pay down the debt on the city’s public safety building and courthouse and has paid for downtown concerts and other entertainment events.

In addition, casino funds have been used for infrastructure projects like street paving, buying new snow plows and police cars and even overtime pay for police officers in the summer. “In the past we’ve never had these dollars available. We used to have to borrow,” Brown said.

Dyster added, “We’ve also used casino revenue to assist businesses in the city that at least hypothetically are in competition with the tax-free restaurants, for example, inside the Seneca Niagara Casino.” He noted the casino employs thousands of workers and is open year-round. Furthermore, Dyster pointed out, “They are not a multinational corporation that is going to go where the highest rate of profit is. They are tied to the land and are here to stay. So by comparison to other business entities then Seneca gaming corporation has a far greater interest in the prosperity of the area surrounding their casino.”

Still, despite collecting nearly $200 million from the casino in 12 years,

Niagara Falls’ population has decreased, its poverty level has increased and taxes have gone up. Many had their hopes for a turnaround pinned on the state’s gaming compact with the Senecas, which was set to expire in 2016. But those hopes were dashed when, two years ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo extended the original deal until 2023.

Dyster said, “We were very much in favor of getting paid what we were owed under the existing arrangement. Our concern was to make sure the funds are there to do the things that we need to do in order to create a better economic future.” He also suggested that if the city had been able to keep more casino revenue under a new compact, state officials may have told Niagara Falls could pay for more of their own projects.

Meanwhile, Brown said, “Casino revenue has been declining over the past couple of years. I saw a decrease from our slot revenues. From 2012 from 2013 it dropped $1.4 million, and then from the first three quarters in 2013 to the first three quarters in 2014, has dropped another $1.4 million.”

Niagara Falls officials also are concerned that Cuomo was able to have legislation passed that will allow more casinos to be built upstate.

Still, Dyster looks forward and noted, “This casino revenue has been used for some very significant projects and things that are not just a betterment to the city today, but are going to continue to pay dividends for decades out into the future.”