By Joyce M. Miles
Niagara Gazette — LOCKPORT — The county Legislature is signaling conditional support for casino gaming expansion in New York, specifically at Batavia Downs.
On a 10-2 vote Tuesday, lawmakers OK'd a resolution encouraging state leaders to authorize full-blown casino gaming at nine "racinos" statewide. Members of the Republican-led majority caucus provided all the yes votes.
Racinos are horse race betting houses where the state also has allowed video lottery terminals to be operated. Batavia Downs, an enterprise of Western Region Off Track Betting, is one such place.
Democratic lawmakers Dennis Virtuoso and Jason Zona, both from Niagara Falls, voted against the resolution. Virtuoso voiced concerns the resolution would antagonize the Seneca Nation, which has withheld profit shares from the City of Niagara Falls the past three years while arguing with the state about whether the racinos violate the Senecas' "exclusive" gaming rights given the nation in its compact with the state to operate casinos. Presently casinos are not elsewise permitted in New York.
Michael Nolan, vice president and chief operating officer of Western Region OTB, says Batavia Downs is a moneymaker for the county, which is a partial owner of WROTB. Niagara's share of OTB profits is averaging $240,000 a year currently, he said.
In the event casino gaming — basically live table games, cards and dice — was introduced at Batavia Downs, Nolan said OTB projects a 40 to 60 percent increase in revenues, which translates to 40 to 60 percent higher profit shares for the 15 counties and two cities that own OTB.
That higher profit share would still be underwhelming compared to what the Seneca Nation shares with Niagara Falls, Virtuoso countered.
Between the amounts going to Niagara Falls School District and the city, Seneca profit sharing is worth nearly $20 million a year, "when they pay it," he said.
The county is benefiting from that arrangement, Virtuoso added, considering that the City of Niagara Falls must give $1 million a year apiece from its profit share to Niagara Falls International Airport and Niagara Tourism & Convention Corporation, the countywide tourism promotion agency.
Pressing for expansion of Batavia Downs possibly at the expense of Seneca Niagara Casino "is like stumbling over a dollar to pick up a dime," Virtuoso said. "Actually it's more like stumbling over $20 million to pick up $1 million."
The resolution as approved calls on the state to allow casino gaming at every racino, specifically including Batavia Downs, on the condition Niagara Falls receives its Seneca profit shares for the life of the compact. That amendment was pitched by Cheree Copelin, R-Niagara Falls.
Paul Wojtaszek, R-North Tonawanda, abstained from the vote, citing his brother Henry's employment with WROTB. The former Niagara County GOP Committee chairman is now the gaming operation's general counsel.
Separate of his argument against riling the Seneca Nation, Virtuoso questioned why Niagara should "lobby" for a casino in Genesee County rather than here. He promised to introduce a resolution next month calling on the state to authorize one in Niagara County, for the construction and gaming jobs it would bring.
The state Legislature is taking steps to amend the state constitution and allow development of seven new casinos statewide. If two successive legislatures OK the proposed amendment, the question will go to a statewide voter referendum. The 2011-12 Legislature passed the amendment earlier this year.
State Assembly member Jane Corwin, R-Clarence, who now represents much of Niagara County outside the Falls, voted against that amendment.
At the time, she said, the gist of the casino push is to allow them at the existing racinos, and that gave her pause. The amendment would OK only seven casinos, but there are nine racinos. She speculated the two in Western New York, at Batavia and Hamburg, could be stricken from the list automatically, since the Seneca Nation already runs three casinos in the region.