Apparently, the city of Buffalo has nothing left to lose. That's the message Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello is expressing with his massive downtown redevelopment project centered on the construction of a casino with the Seneca nation. Just like a broke gambler betting his last quarter at a slot machine, Buffalo is praying that the casino can single-handedly revive the city from its economic and demographic blight.
Masiello's $800 million plan, which draws funding from the state government, calls for a major overhaul of the downtown area, including building a new convention center, redeveloping Genesee Street, using the Niagara Mohawk Building and Statler Towers for hotels, burying a portion of the 190 Highway, and creating housing developments on the waterfront.
The revenue to support all of this added construction will be supposedly generated by the casino. With the exception of State Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, most Buffalo politicians back the casino project as a way to bring 3,000 jobs and $6 million in gambling revenue to the city.
There is no consumer demand for another local casino. A plan this expensive demands outside tourist revenue to fund it. It's simply not plausible that the average tourist would ditch Las Vegas, Atlantic City, or even Turning Stone to see the great wonders a Buffalo casino has to offer.
Not to mention the fact that Buffalo faces stiff competition from Canada's Casino Niagara, and the planned casino for Niagara Falls, N.Y., just 20 miles north of the city. Tourists who come to Western New York to check out the Falls rarely venture out of Canada, let alone making a trip to Buffalo. A Niagara Falls, N.Y. casino provides offers even less incentive to check out the Queen City.
Despite the continual flow of dollars and population out of Buffalo, Masiello expects the casino to generate enough cash and people to fund his expansive reconstruction projects for downtown. Unfortunately, you can't expect funds to come from places that don't have them. An economic foundation must be there first. That kind of financing does not exist, just as Buffalo lacks funds for its beleaguered public schools. But that doesn't stop Masiello from funneling state money into the casino project.
Buffalo shouldn't hold its breath if it expects money to come flowing back into the city. The people who come out of the region, or even from the suburbs, to spend their money, will simply leave it at the casino. In fact, whatever profits the casino generates, it takes away from other businesses. Every double-down bet on the blackjack table is one less meal at a local restaurant, one less ticket bought at the Theater District.
Masiello envisions employment benefits from the would-be casino, but the job opportunities are limited to low-wage service occupations such as parking attendants, token distributors and crap table operators - not the kind of jobs needed for economic stimulation. So what does Buffalo have to gain? Just use your imagination. Picture a city dotted by unfinished construction projects, traffic jams, and street corners with panhandlers and prostitutes.
Or check out other cities that also prayed to the gambling gods to save them. Detroit, another rust belt city, boasts no economic gains. The reality looks like this: casino patrons are engulfed in a glittering oasis. When they venture a few blocks away from it, they see the crumbling mess that surrounds their hotel.
Except for weekend suburbanites, the only regular customers the casino can expect are Buffalo residents already too poor to be gambling away their wages. Ironically, it's the people of Buffalo who have the least to gain. If Masiello channels the city's resources into the expensive casino project, what's left is little money to help local businesses, or schools, or the cultural community.
In 1901, Buffalo celebrated the Pan-American Exposition at the pinnacle of its prosperity. One hundred years later, the city wants to build it again, only this time under the foundation of cocktail waitresses and card sharks. While we have lost much economically, go to a concert, attend a play at Studio Arena, or shop on Elmwood to see what Buffalo has to offer. We can lose all this at the roll of a die.