By Tony Farina
Nudged along with help from State Sen. Tim Kennedy of South Buffalo, the State Legislature appeared poised to approve a new gaming compact over the weekend between the state and the Seneca Nation, but the secretive negotiations leading to a deal have now ignited a firestorm of controversy over word that the state may be ready to back a Seneca gaming casino in downtown Rochester as part of the agreement.
Monroe County Executive Adam Bello said discussion of a casino in downtown Rochester “should be discussed out in the open, in conversations that include members of our state delegation and local officials. It’s deeply troubling that this community has now been placed in this position of debating an issue without knowing the full details of what has been negotiated.”
Bello was joined by many other local and state officials in the Rochester community, including the mayor and council, who appeared to have been totally blindsided by the talk of a Seneca casino for Rochester being part of the deal on a new gaming compact to replace the current compact which expires in December.
Henry Wojtaszek, president and CEO of Western Regional Off-Track Betting, said in a statement “a stealth casino in the Rochester area should be a non-starter for residents, community leaders and elected officials,” adding “many of the more than 400 jobs here at Batavia Downs would be in jeopardy if a Rochester-area casino is opened, and the millions of dollars in revenue we send to 15 counties and the cities of Buffalo and Rochester would be drastically cut.”
Sen. Kennedy, who has received more than $140,000 from Seneca interests for his $2 million-plus campaign treasury, won Senate approval 62-1 on June 9 on a bill that would have moved the gaming compact negotiations forward with no hint of the back-room dealing about the state backing a Seneca casino for downtown Rochester that has now stirred an uproar and stalled negotiations on a new compact. The Senecas have donated more money to Sen. Kennedy than any other politician since 2020.
And that’s the same Sen. Kennedy who recently scored a political coup by including legislation in the budget bill that would dismantle Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp., one of the most successful public benefit agencies in the entire area.
Wojtaszek, who has led WROTBC through its very successful run, said there are 10 gaming facilities less than 100 miles in any direction from Rochester, and building another casino in Rochester as part of the new gaming compact would fit the definition of saturation.
Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack has called on the State Assembly to intervene on a possible deal between the state and Senecas that would include a Rochester casino possibility as part of a new gaming compact.
In a statement, Finger Lake Gaming said it has been a vital economic contributor in the Rochester region by employing more than 1,500 local residents and supporting the region’s agricultural and equine economies through racing. The statement added: the state’s video lottery terminals (VLT) gaming revenues contribute a far greater percentage of their revenue to the state that the Seneca casinos, meaning the demise of the Finger Lakes venue at the hands of a Rochester-area Seneca casino would cost the state tens of millions of dollars in revenue and the regional economy thousands of jobs.”
Stay tuned as we try to follow what is going on in the talks now that this firestorm of controversy has fully erupted as the talks appeared headed to a conclusion. The problem clearly appears to be a total lack of transparency in the negotiations and that has created a feeling that political interests are fueling the negotiations, not what’s in the best interests of the taxpayers.