The Senecas' Buffalo Creek Casino, Part II
by Bruce Jackson
Dianne Bennett, one of the region’s top lawyers, is a member of the steering committee of Citizens for a Better Buffalo, the group which has funded and organized the legal actions opposing the Senecas’ proposed Buffalo Creek casino. She recently retired from Buffalo’s largest law firm, Hodgson Russ, where she was president.
The nature of casinos
Casinos are whole institutions. You don’t get people there and give them literature on how to go up to Chippewa Street. You get them there and you make them stay in your restaurants, your bars, your hotel, listen to your music. The idea is to not even give them windows to look outside. They don’t want anybody to even think about going outside. This notion that people will go to the casino and then go to a hockey game or to Chippewa is dreaming. It’s the antithesis of the way a good casino operates. “A good casino” meaning one that makes money for the casino owners.
They’re going to draw from a local clientele. They’re going to keep them in the casino, which means they’re not going to spend those dollars elsewhere in the community. If you add to it that in this casino, the money that flows doesn’t bear any tax, then it’s an even worse economic deal. The city is going to get, what is it each year?
Five to seven million dollars.
For 10 years. That’s nothing compared to what the city is going to spend, first of all, on traffic and infrastructure, and the loss of tax revenue, which is just going to grow as the casino grows. And if people don’t think that casino is going to grow, they’re smoking something. That’s what casinos do. It is in the nature of casinos.
Some people have talked about this casino not paying property tax, but many institutions don’t pay property tax: schools, churches, hospitals....
And there’s probably hardly anything being paid for that plot now. But—
—it’s the other taxes that are substantial.
The sales tax, for starters, that you’re going to lose. We’ve just increased our sales tax rate and now we’re going to take a whole chunk of our economy off the sales tax rolls, which means the amount of sales tax you’re going to take in overall in the community is going to drop. Well, great. What are they going to do, raise the sales tax again?
I just read that in the Niagara Falls casino they’re starting to sell jewelry and Prada bags and that sort of thing. So they’re taking money away from whatever other kinds of shopping people do and taking it off the sales tax rolls.
An economic drain
It also turns out charitable contributions drop in communities that have gambling. If you look at the religious sector or the government sector, at the same time that there is more demand on the programs that are needed to deal with problem gamblers, charitable contributions drop and tax revenues drop. It’s like a double negative, you’re just sinking faster. That’s why I think the religious communities who haven’t come to the fore yet better open their eyes, because they’re going to have more costs and fewer dollars to address those costs. For them, in terms of economics, it’s just atrocious.
“Charitable” also includes arts organizations. The Albright-Knox is going to suffer, the Philharmonic is going to suffer.
It is a drain. And it’s a drain that just gets bigger and bigger. I think you see that in Niagara Falls when you see casino property expanding, taking more property, taking it off the tax rolls, taking land away from any kind of tax base, and they’re selling things and providing services—hotels, restaurants, jewelry, cigarettes, whatever, that at least at this point, aren’t taxed.
Any economic study worth its salt, and by that I mean one not funded by the gambling industry or somebody connected with the industry, concludes that a casino takes positive economic growth from a community and sucks it into the casino, at which point the money generally goes elsewhere. Some of it goes into pay of people in the community but most of the money flows outside of the community. It’s a vortex.
To me, that’s the basic economic argument: a casino is an economic drain on a community.
This is a sort of outsourcing. I think this community more than most understands outsourcing, because we’re basically a heavily unionized rust-belt manufacturing city. We saw it first. The jobs went from here to the south, then they went to Mexico, now they’re going to India and China. We get it. We get that jobs will go where the payscale is least. So in this country where we spent a hundred years or more building up worker protections, community protections—whether it’s environmental or health or wage and hour, child labor, you name it—we’re now finding that the kind of protection that we believe in so strongly is basically being used against us to ship jobs to India and China where they don’t have those protections and they can pay lower wages.
I see the same thing going on with this casino. We are shipping jobs to a piece of land that does not have to play by our rules, that does not have the protections that we’ve built up over the years.
That is outsourcing.
We are taking jobs in the community under the protection that we have built up over all these years as a developed nation, and we are sending them someplace and we’re going to say, “Okay, we’re going to trust you guys to have a decent workplace.”
That’s ridiculous. Why should they? I’m just astounded that the unions will sit back and let this happen.
I’ve heard that the construction trades are desperate for these jobs, albeit they’re short term, and the other unions say, “We don’t want to rain on their parade.”
I’ve been very supportive of the unions, but the unions have shown themselves to be very short-sighted. They do not look at a longer horizon.
The unions here ought to be at the barricades because they are going to lose union jobs to a casino. Hands down. But in the short term, there are some possibilities of a few construction jobs. They sell out the long term for the short term.
I think that the business people are doing the same thing. And the politicians are doing the same thing.
We choose such a short horizon to look at, whether you’re the CEO of a New York Stock Exchange company and you’re looking at the earnings picture, at the report you’re getting this quarter, or the automakers, who are building huge cars, not looking at the future and saying we may need to look at smaller cars. And here we have business people saying, “It’s going to hurt me today because I’ll get bad publicity.” Or “It’s going to hurt me today because—.”
I give the churches that have stepped up a lot of credit for coming to the fore in this case, but there are some churches who you think would be there, religious communities, who are going to bear the brunt of this, who aren’t up front either because they’re afraid they’re going to lose.
I think some people are afraid of the amount of money that can be spent on the other side to damage them. Just the leverage of the other side. If you look at the Abramoff scandal you see the kind of money that’s been pumped—and I’m not suggesting that’s the scandal here—just the kind of money that’s put behind casinos because they’re cash cows for somebody. Not for the community, but for somebody. People are afraid of that in the short run.
So who is going to look out for the longer range? By long range you could be talking about five years, ten years. We’re not talking a hundred years. But nobody’s looking beyond eighteen months or so. That’s frightening. You cannot run a city that way.
I think we’re lost
What keeps surprising me is, I thought business people were different. But they’re not, at least in this.
Yes, you would think they would be different, but I don’t see it here. I got email from a very high-level business person: “You can’t tell anybody, but I’m behind you 100 percent.” I ran into a local businessman in the post office who said, “You’ve gotta do this. Money that goes in the casino doesn’t just take away from restaurants. It takes away from people buying washing machines. It affects every business in the community.”
But they’re not saying it out loud. They’re saying it to me. And I think that leads citizens in the community to think that there aren’t as many people who get this as there are.
I’ve probably talked to 20 business people, and virtually all of them say, “I’m behind you 100 percent. Absolutely, we’ve got to get rid of this casino. The casino is a terrible thing for Buffalo, but...”—then comes the big but—“...but I can’t be seen opposing it. It would be bad for my business.” Or, “I’m in partnership with somebody. It would be bad for his business.” Or, “I get money from the state or my entity does. We can’t afford to be going against the state.” Or, “I need cooperation from the city. I can’t be seen going against the city.” Or even, “I’ve got business with the Senecas.”
Business with the Senecas comes the lowest on the list. It’s their fingers in every other pie that keeps people from standing up and saying, “What is good for our city as a whole? What is good for our region as a whole?”
If our business people can’t do that, where are we? If our business people really feel their hands are tied or their immediate circumstances prevent them from doing what they think is good for the city, I think we’re lost.
I’ve been astonished, as a non-business person, at what seems to me to be the passivity of the business community.
The business community isn’t passive if you scratch it a little, if you look kind of underneath the skin. The passion with which some people have expressed their views to me says to me they’re not passive, except they’ve been shut down by, I think, the system. There’s something wrong with our political/business system here, and even the educational systems too, if most of the leaders in those institutions feel they can’t speak out on something that they absolutely believe is bad for our city. I think maybe that’s why a lot of the reforms that have been proposed over the years never have taken hold.
So this is emblematic or an indication of a far deeper or a far broader problem.
I think it might be. I haven’t studied it. When I sat on the board of the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership—I probably think better of the group than you do—they could do some really good things. I think the Erie County Stabilization Committee was a fantastic effort. I’m trying to think if we faced much pressure not to say what we thought. I don’t think so and it may have been because the county was so down and out at that point that a business person could take strong positions without feeling like you were going to lose something on the other side.
But generally, if you look at things like the regionalization studies that come out of UB, they don’t seem to go anywhere. They don’t seem to take root and blossom. I’ve always blamed the political system, I’ve always said, “Well, we’ve got lousy politics.” But I’m starting to think it’s bigger than that.
Maybe it’s not just Buffalo, maybe it’s a condition of the 21st century U.S. that government and business and the educational system have become so intertwined, that nobody can stand up and say, “It’s wrong.” Nobody can say that the emperor has no clothes.
There is nobody on the other side
Where are the business people standing up and saying, “This is a great deal for the community”? Can you think of one business person who doesn’t have a piece of the development pie or want to get it, literally right in that area, a business person or an educator, or a religious person, who is saying, “This is good for our community?”
That’s what I think people have to start looking at: there really is nobody on the other side—except people who can put money in their own pockets. By “own pockets” I don’t mean illegally, I just mean the glitz of whatever it is, a couple of hundred new (temporary, and not net) jobs, on the little upswing you’re going to get before you go down into the pits.
The Seneca Nation’s going to make out great here. I don’t begrudge them trying to do it. But it’s not good for the community. That’s the bottom line.
Is there anything to be done?
I think the citizens can act. They can call and write and harangue the politicians. The politicians think this is a free ride. They think nobody is really paying attention or nobody really cares. So I think it’s time for the citizens to act, as they did with the Peace Bridge, the zoo and Children’s Hospital. At some point, citizens can say, “Enough! Listen to what we’re saying,” and can effect a change.
Maybe what you have to say in Buffalo is the citizens have done it more than the politicians or the business people. I think that’s too bad in a way, but I think it’s good in a way. We who are willing to be out front at this point have to get the citizens to understand us, what’s happening here. And I think they haven’t understood.
Part of that is our fault. Artvoice ran I don’t know how many articles on casinos five years or so ago. I didn’t pay much attention. I didn’t think it would happen. I thought it was such a bad idea really nothing would happen. At that point it seemed to me that, you know, “Oh, other people will do it. Nobody can really do anything that stupid.” So I just kind of let it go. And I think a lot of people did.
In the meantime, I think the arguments were out there, but they weren’t being disseminated well enough. The fact is that the News picking it up and doing some really good stories on it I think has made a difference.
They’ve done good stories on it lately. The editorial page hasn’t caught on yet.
I care more about the stories. I think the citizens of Buffalo pay more attention to the stories than they do to the editorials. It would be nice if the editorial position could be different, but it’s kind of like the business community and the politicians. I think that until the stone is really going downhill fast we’re not going to pick up those people. Not until they think the tide has really turned. I think we’ve really caused people to stop and take a look, which is what our first goal was. Now we need turn the tide.
You mean with the Citizens for a Better Buffalo lawsuit in federal court?
Yes. It was the lawsuit, the people behind the lawsuit, with the Wendt Foundation funding the group of attorneys, the really solid group of attorneys. This isn’t a lawsuit on the cheap. This is a really solid lawsuit. That makes a big difference, I think.
One of the things I haven’t got around to yet is to go back to all those businesspeople who said, “Oh I’m behind you but I can’t do it because of X” and say, “Okay. Now you can see it’s not a done deal. Now you can see that there are others standing up here. Would you consider coming out front now?” I think we might start to pick people up. I don’t think they’re going to come to us and say “Oh, sign me up.” But I think if we go to them and say, “Look, we’ve done it. We’ve broken through this barrier of ‘done deal’ and ‘forget it, it’s over.’ So come on, now get on board.” That’s my next project.
A bill of goods
I should make it clear that I’m not against gambling. I’ve been to casinos. I don’t find them that interesting, I’m not somebody who really likes them, but I certainly don’t have anything against them for those who choose to spend their entertainment dollars that way.
The problem I think is that the compact is a bad deal for the State of New York and all the communities involved. It’s just a plain old bad deal. I think our government sold us short on that one. They sold us all a bill of goods, basically.
I think Buffalonians are in some ways optimistic. In some ways they’re beaten down but in other ways they’re willing to be sold something that looks good. Maybe they’re desperate. Maybe optimistic isn’t the right word. Maybe desperate is the right word.
To me, the information just has not gotten out to them to help them understand what the economics are here. Maybe it’s our fault as part of the business community. Maybe it’s the educational institutions’ fault. It’s certainly not the fault of Citizens Against Casino Gambling in Erie County. They have tried. But I don’t think they have made the dent you have to make to change the community, to change politicians. Look at what the News said: “We can’t do anything about it, so let’s cut the best deal we can.”
There is no best deal with a casino of this kind. There is none. Wake up. Realize that. And then decide what you’re going to do about it.
Bruce Jackson, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at UB, is a member of the steering committee of Citizens for a Better Buffalo. He edits the web journal BuffaloReport.com. For more of his articles on the Buffalo casino, as well as links to other reports and documents, visit http://buffaloreport.com/casinoarticles.html.
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