By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — Bruce Battaglia asked questions that were no doubt on the minds of a lot of the people seated inside the John Duke Center Wednesday afternoon.
Following former state Assemblyman Sam Hoyt's presentation on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposed 2013 budget, the former publisher of the Niagara Falls Reporter newspaper stood up and asked if residents in the city of Niagara Falls would have a say in the development of a new non-Indian owned casino Cuomo is said to be favoring according to recent published reports.
"Is it going to be a decision that's solely and exclusively made in Albany?" Battaglia said.
Before Hoyt answered, Battaglia asked another key question: What, if any role, might New York City real estate developer and Niagara Falls Redevelopment owner Howard Milstein play in such a project?
Milstein's name and his local company have been included in recent published reports about Cuomo's interest in adding a second casino in the Falls. Speculation about NFR's potential involvement stems in large part from its vast holdings in the downtown area. The company and its affiliates currently own more than 400 parcels in a development territory outlined under various redevelopment agreements with the city dating back to 1997. Milstein's firm has been criticized in some circles locally for failing to redevelop its Falls properties as was expected when city officials signed off on the original agreement more than a decade ago.
"Is that who we are going to have as our developer?" Battaglia said, referring to Milstein. "Because we all know his track record here in Niagara Falls."
On Wednesday, Hoyt, who serves under Cuomo as the head of the state-run Empire State Development Corp. in Western New York, suggested it's far too early to discuss specifics of any sort of new casino plan in the Falls. Hoyt noted that any such effort would require a key step: An amendment to the state's constitution that would legalize gaming across New York.
While state lawmakers have granted preliminary approval to a measure advancing the cause, Hoyt noted that a second round of approval would be needed this year before the constitutional amendment could be put to a public vote, possibly this November.
"There is no guarantee that this is going to pass," he said.
Hoyt characterized suggestions that Milstein or anyone else might have an inside track on operating a new casino in the Falls as "speculative" at this point.
"There is no pre-determined decision on who would be the land owner or who would be the operator or where a casino would be located, etc.," Hoyt said.
As to the question of whether residents living in the Falls would have a say on any future casino development in the community, Hoyt said the answer was an unequivocal "yes."
He indicated that Cuomo's gaming expansion plans — which the governor has previously said would involve three new casinos in "upstate" — will eventually pass through a gaming commission which will be charged with creating rules and regulations, reviewing development proposals and, ultimately, determining the preferred operators and locations for all new facilities.
"(Cuomo) made it clear in his State of the State address that local buy-in will be part of the decision-making process," Hoyt said.
During Wednesday's session, Niagara County Legislator Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, encouraged Hoyt to recommend to the governor's office that a local representative, preferably someone from the Falls or at least Niagara County, be reserved a spot on the gaming board.
Hoyt said the members of the commission have not yet been determined but he would expect the region to be represented when the body is established.
Neither Cuomo nor his administration has issued any formal statements concerning the future of gaming in the Falls. Some have speculated that the effort is intended to add competition in the Seneca Nation's exclusive gaming territory in Western New York. Others have suggested the proposal is aimed at spurring a settlement with the Nation, which has been withholding slot machine revenue payments owed to the state and host communities like the Falls under the existing Gaming Compact.
Mayor Paul Dyster said talk of proposed gaming expansion in the Falls creates additional leverage in the ongoing dispute with the Senecas while providing another option should the dispute remain unresolved.
"Obviously, the major concern for the city to get the dispute resolved so we can be paid what we are owed," Dyster said.
Following Wednesday's meeting while meeting with reporters, Hoyt was asked for if he thought, ultimately, the Falls would be home to a second casino.
In response, he said: "My opinion is insignificant. It's the opinion of the people who will have the opportunity to vote on it that's important."