By CAROLYN THOMPSON
The Associated Press
BUFFALO -- With New York state about to take bids for its first non-Indian casinos, tribes looking to hold their ground have been upgrading their existing casinos and exploring new ones.
The Seneca Indian Nation, which operates three casinos in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Salamanca under a 2002 compact with the state, bought 32 acres outside Rochester last week for a potential fourth location.
A day later, the Oneida Nation unveiled a $15 million investment in new cash slot machines to replace prepay terminals and a revamped loyalty program at its 20-year-old Turning Stone casino in Verona.
The Seneca and Oneida sites could face competition from a $350 million non-Indian casino, hotel and entertainment complex envisioned roughly midway between them in a sliver of the state separating the Seneca exclusivity zone and Oneida exclusivity zone, which also grants gaming rights to the Cayuga Indian Nation, whose reservation lies within it.
"Our location, which is virtually midway between Syracuse and Rochester, is a very attractive location because it's between two population centers and it's connected via the Thruway," said Juris Basens, vice president for casino operations at Rochester-based Wilmorite, one of several developers who have made public their plans to apply for one of the first non-Indian casino licenses to be awarded later this year.
Seneca officials, who will likely need state and federal approval for a fourth casino, said plans for the new Monroe County property have yet to be developed, but Cathy Walker, president and chief executive of Seneca Gaming Corp., appeared unfazed by the prospect of a casino two counties over.
"The market in the Rochester region is underserved, and there is sufficient market for all to do well," Walker said.
Oneida spokesman Joel Barkin said the investment in Turning Stone was among the largest in years and follows last year's $25 million addition of an entertainment and restaurant complex. "This was done in response to guest feedback and to make sure we're at the cutting edge of the gaming experience," Barkin said.
Agreements reached between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state's tribal leaders last year preserve vast sections in western, central and northern New York as "exclusivity zones" for tribal development only. The Seneca, Mohawk and Oneida Indian nations currently have a total of five casinos in those areas.
New York is in line for up to seven full-scale non-Indian casinos after voters in November approved a constitutional amendment to expand casino gambling as a way to create jobs, generate revenue for schools and ease property taxes.
Montgomery County is said to be in the running for one of the gaming sites, with 512 acres of land in the town of Florida being marketed for such a venture and local elected officials having passed resolutions in support of the idea.
The state's request for proposals is expected this month for the first round of as many as four casinos to be built in designated upstate areas in the Catskills, Southern Tier and Albany region. Developers have already announced proposals for casinos in Nichols, near the Pennsylvania border, Binghamton and the Ulster County towns of Ellenville and Kerhonkson.
The state's Gaming Commission, headed by Hobart and Williams Smith Colleges President Mark Gearan, is expected to appoint members to a casino siting board when it meets Wednesday.
Adding to the recent casino debate this past week was a resolution by the Saratoga Springs City Council opposing a Las Vegas-style casino in that thoroughbred racing city, which is among those being eyed by developers.
"For me, quality of life doesn't mean more gambling culture," said Jonathon Newell, leader of The Dirty Harri Band, one of several artists who have joined in opposition.
Meanwhile, an online petition by the No More Casinos Coalition, with support from Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack and Batavia Downs, two of the state's nine racetrack/video gaming halls, had drawn more than 1,800 electronic signatures in opposition of a fourth Seneca Nation casino.
Lawmakers in Genesee, Niagara, Orleans and Wyoming counties also have opposed the Seneca plans, saying they would harm the Batavia track. The facility is owned by Western Regional Off-Track Betting, whose profits go to 15 counties.
"This region is oversaturated with casino gaming, and another facility will cause irreparable harm to thousands of businesses, families and municipalities throughout the region," said Michael Nolan, executive vice president of WROTB.
The Indian gaming industry generated $27.9 billion in 2012, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission. While it was the highest-ever total, the number has been relatively flat since 2007, when revenues totaled just over $26 billion.