(Artvoice 19 July 2001)
Sure thing or sucker bet?
by Bruce Jackson
Buffalo mayor Anthony Masiello has market analyses that show Buffalo would do well with a casino, even with casinos in Ontario’s and New York’s Niagara Falls and hundreds of slots in Fort Erie. I haven’t seen those analyses, but I bet you a Buffalo nickle they’re like the hooker who tells the short dumpy dull salesman he’s tall, slim, handsome and witty. In the opinion business, you get the reports you pay for. Masiello has no truck with business leaders who say a casino anywhere near downtown or in the city at all is a lousy idea. He just doesn’t believe all those negative reports, as if the casino question were a choice on the order of the efficacy of prayer or whether or not stepping on the cracks will affect your future.
He has set up a casino task force and, according to Buffalo News reporter Patrick Lakamp, he has taken the astonishing step of ordering them not to talk about whether or not Buffalo should have a gambling joint or what the consequences of a gambling joint in the city would be, but only to figure out the best way to put one into the city’s downtown area.
(A friend told me that “gambling joint” is a little vulgar, and I guess it is, but the mayor and all the developers and all the developers’ supporters keep referring to this enterprise as “gaming,” which it surely is not. “Gaming” is a term the gambling industry’s PR agents came up with a few years ago to make their enterprise more palatable to folks like you and me. It’s no surprise that they would do that – marketers are in business to get people to buy their products – but we’ve got to be on our guard when public officials buy into hustlers’ diction. It’s like calling women “girls” or Asians “slopes”or Irish “micks”: by the time you start using those words you’ve bought in to a whole structure of thenceforth unexamined values.)
The members of Masiello’s Don’t-Think/Just-Design team are Buffalo developer Carl Paladino, NFTA chairman Luiz F. Kahl, UB Architecture department chairman Kent Kleinman, Canisius VP for business and finance Laurence W. Franz, Shea’s president Patrick J. Fagan, Rep. Jack Quinn, Buffalo businessman and chairman-elect of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership Mark Hamister, former Buffalo Sabres president Lawrence Quinn, State Sen. Byron Brown, Brownstone Bistro owner Mark Croce, InfoTech Niagara executive director Cian Robinson, Hart Hotel executive David Hart, Peter Hunt of Hunt Real Estate and Keith Belanger of M&T Bank.
Mayor Masiello’s attempt to prevent discussion of the merits of casino gambling is hardly surprising. After all, he was just about holding hands with Governor Pataki during the governor’s June 20 press conference at a Niagara Falls scenic overlook, the one with a gaggle of union and elected officials from Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Erie county and Niagara county all lined up and grinning. What is surprising is that so many respectable people have agreed to wear the mayor’s muzzles.
Not all members of that task force join it as neutral observers. Some may very well make money from casino development, and one of them is already making threats about people who might ask difficult questions."God forbid someone tries to stand in the way of this thing, “ Carl Paladino told Lakamp. “They are going to see themselves out of office after the next election. The people of this city will not tolerate another disappointment. There's a line being drawn in the sand, and we're not going to take any more political rhetoric."
“We're not going to take any more political rhetoric?” What do you think that means? The kind of rhetoric that stopped the Buffalo and Niagara Public Bridge Authority from putting up its steel twin-span dog that would have made a few people rich but devastated the city? The kind of rhetoric that got county executive Joel Giambra to insist on an environmental impact study before beginning construction of a second convention center no one really knows if the city needs or can afford?
When someone with Paladino’s access, clout and money makes threats like that in public, when a member of a supposedly-objective task force makes threats like that before any data is considered, you have to wonder what kind of pressure he and others like him are applying and what deals they’re making and have already made in private. This is really scary.
PATAKI SAYS ‘JUMP!’
Masiello didn’t start this. He just joined Governor Pataki’s parade.
Pataki is urging us to move forward quickly so we can join the Seneca Nation in a new greater Niagara co-prosperity sphere. The Senecas are discussing whether or not they want to put casinos in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, and whether or not they want to enter any new relationship with New York State. After they’ve talked it out and after New York State replaces the June memorandum of understanding with a detailed plan, they’re going to vote on it.
Pataki says we non-Senecas shouldn’t waste time discussing any of this, that we should just sign on and shut up, just as the Republican-controlled State Senate did the day after he announced the plan at the June 20 dog-and-pony show.
He warns that if we take time to examine the implications of this compact the Senecas might vote against it, that they might not collaborate with us unless we shut our mouths and our eyes.
Surely that is absurd. Senecas aren’t like that, at least none of the Senecas I know. I’ve never heard one say he or she thought it unreasonable for anybody to check the facts and talk them over. That’s why they’re waiting to vote until all the details are on the table. And it’s not just the details coming out of Albany they’re concerned about: many of them worry worried that any kind of complex deal with New York State involving money, land, and working conditions may be bad for the tribe. Their vote, whenever it comes, is by no means a lock for Pataki and the gambling joint developers.
It’s George Pataki and Anthony Masiello applying the pressure, not the Senecas. They’re saying “Jump. There’s a net down there you can’t see, but we’re sure it’s there. Jump. Trust us.”
Why should we?
Why shouldn’t we take as much care with this as the Senecas? Why shouldn’t we be told all the details, all the plans, all the implications, before we allow anyone to alter the structure of our community? Why should our governor be discouraging us from giving this the thought it deserves? Why should our mayor be setting up a task force to look at everything but whether or not this is a good idea?
If we’ve learned nothing else in all the public works disasters in this region it is this: the moment a public or corporate official tells us “We must hurry, the gold ring is there for only this instant, there’s no time to wait, trust me” that is exactly the moment for us to pull up our most comfortable chairs and take all the time we need for thought, discussion, and considered decision-making.
GENIES AND BOTTLES
We need to have a referendum not on the vague memorandum of understanding Governor Pataki pushed his staff to negotiate last month and which his Senate rubber-stamped a day later and which the mayor of Buffalo has used as charter for a crippled task force, but on the real thing, the detailed final agreement, with numbers, obligations, accountability, dues, and binding promises.
And our vote on that document shouldn’t be based on the promises of politicians and developers, but on the same kind of environmental impact study that Judge Eugene Fahey told the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority it had to do if it had any hope of meddling with our physical, economic and social environments. Or do the same kind of environmental impact study Erie County Executive Joel Giambra decided had to be done before he let developers build a convention center we maybe don’t need or in what might be the wrong place.
All we’ve got now is Pataki’s promise that the gambling genie will make Buffalo rich and Mayor Masiello’s faith that Pataki is on to something swell.
Even in fairytales, you’ve got to reality check sometimes. Some genies make you rich; some eat you up; you don’t know what kind you’ve got until they’re out of the bottle. By the time they get out of the bottle they’re big. Genies hate getting stuffed back in the bottle. A gambling casino in downtown Buffalo, or anywhere near it, would be a very big genie. And it wouldn’t even be our genie.
SEE GEORGE RUN
There’s only one reason Governor Pataki has started this gambling bandwagon rolling in our direction: his reasonable fear that voters in this part of the state are so angry at the way he has ignored our economic woes they’ll vote for whoever is on the Democratic line next November. He is fully aware that Mario Cuomo’s son may evict him from the governor’s mansion just as he evicted Mario eight years ago. For most of the past seven years, as far as Pataki has been concerned, this region was in Pennsylvania. Now he’s dancing backward, saying, “Look, I care, I care. I feel your pain. Take this casino and it will solve all your ills. I want you to have it so much I’ve found a way to circumvent state law to help you get it. Love me.”
Why else would he go public with that diaphanous memorandum of understanding with the Senecas, one that will almost certainly cost our town far more money than it would bring us and destroy far more downtown jobs than it would create? Building casinos in collaboration with the Senecas means he doesn’t have to get the state constitutional vote that would otherwise be required. It means he doesn’t have to come to the people of New York to ask if they want legalized off-reservation casinos. It means he doesn’t have to submit this to public discussion and analysis. It means it can all be handled in back-room negotiations and deals and or-else statements from his office, the mayor’s office, and developers like Carl Paladino.
Grand Island residents are furious because they think Pataki let the charms of this deal blind him to their current plight. They’re right to be furious: he did shove their interests aside in his rush to ink this deal. I think George Pataki made a bet of his own: he’s betting it will get him more votes from residents of Buffalo and Niagara Falls and from Seneca Indians than it will cost him on Grand Island.
I bet that he thinks we’ll be so bedazzled by the promise of free money we’ll step into the booth next November and click his lever, muttering, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
WHAT’S WITH TONY?
I don’t understand Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello’s reasons for signing on to Pataki’s secret deal. He saw what happened at the Peace Bridge, how an ill-conceived project thought up by wheelers and dealers talking to one another in closed rooms was stopped dead by an outraged citizenry. He saw Joel Giambra cancel the convention center parade until a full environmental impact study substituted facts for claims and promises.
Last election, Tony Masiello buddied up with the Republican governor and they both got re-elected. The word was, he did that because he thought Buffalo would get wondrous benefits from Albany. Those bennies never arrived and we’ve been an Albany joke ever since. This time Masiello has a huge war-chest and no plausible opposition and we all know Albany isn’t going to rescue us from reality. Unless Tony does something disastrous between now and November, he keeps his job without raising a sweat.
So why didn’t he say to Pataki, “Governor, thanks for thinking about us. I’m going to bring this to my community and hear what they have to say, and then let’s see where we are. If they like the idea, then you and the Senecas and we can sit down and work out a deal that serves all our interests. And if people in my town don’t like the deal, well, I wish you and the Senecas well in your new venture.”
I don’t know why he didn’t do that. I think he should have done that.
THE OTHER POLS
According to Buffalo News Washington reporter Jerry Zremski, Congressman Jack Quinn expressed doubts about the wisdom of putting a casino in Buffalo, but said he’d go along with whatever other people decided. Quinn subsequently joined Masiello’s gagged task force, which means he’s agreed to stop giving the basic question – should we be doing this at all? – any serious thought. Senator Charles Schumer raised a number of key questions about the economic and social value of a casino in Buffalo, and then said he’d wait to see how people reacted to all of this. Stealth Senator Hillary Clinton once again had no comment on a key Buffalo issue and merely issued a waffley statement through an aide and then later told a reporter she’d do what she could to implement whatever the locals decided.
The three area politicians who have made the most sense on this issue from the beginning are Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, Assemblyman Arthur Eve, and Congressman John LaFalce.
Hoyt has asked for some evidence that a casino will help the city more than it will hurt it and he has urged the bigshots to slow down and make sure they really know what they're doing. He refused to go on Masiello’s gagged task force. He's said that fact-finding would be more useful than press conferences. For this, I hear, he has received considerable heat and abuse from Albany and from some developers. He should be thanked.
Eve argues that a casino in Buffalo will worsen rather than improve the city's financial and social condition, and that none of the profits from the casino will go to anyone in his district.
It's not only people in Eve's district who would get nothing from the casino. The governor proposes that Niagara Falls and Buffalo split 3% of the State's 25% share of casino profits. That comes to$3750 out of every $1,000,000 in profits, not enough to pick up the casino's garbage, let alone all the significant costs associated with casino operations. All the objective studies I’ve found support Eve and Hoyt: in nearly all towns where gambling isn't itself the primary reason for the town's economic existence, local businesses are harmed, more local jobs are lost than are created by the gambling operation, and payments to local communities doesn't began to approximate losses in local business and job income, transfer of local spending to casino spending, and the huge police, medical and social services operations large-scale gambling operations inevitably require.
The Federal government will have only a minor part to play in this, but LaFalce has been asking the key questions all the other pols except Hoyt and Eve have been glossing over.
A casino in Niagara Falls, New York, might be a reasonable idea, he said, because there is functionally one there anyway only all the money is being scooped up by the Canadian government and the private operators it’s in cahoots with. Downtown Niagara Falls is a disaster area with no way to go but up. At least some of the people who would come there to gamble would be from out of town, so a casino wouldn’t be bleeding establishments already in place. (And gamblers who check the odds might even prefer gambling on the American side because Canadian border casinos are notorious for taking the biggest skim in the industry.)
But downtown Buffalo? LaFalce says that the money poured into the casino wouldn’t be new money, money from elsewhere. It would be community money, money that would have been spent here anyway. But money spent in local stores, restaurants, theaters, and such, has a multiplier effect: the same dollar goes around several times. Money spent in a casino is spent once and its gone. The odds are that rather than bringing money to Buffalo, a casino would move money out of Buffalo.
The whole thing, he has several times said, deserves a hard and careful look.
Are Eve, Hoyt and LaFalce right or are the governor, the mayor and the developers right? Can it be possible that we have nothing to learn from the hard-earned and often bitter experience of other cities that leapt into gambling operations without giving careful thought to the impact of such enterprises on the rest of the urban economy and the quality of urban life?
This is too important to be dealt out in secret Albany meetings and too important to be left to a city hall task force told it must consider every issue but the one that matters most. It is too important to be dropped on us with the message that anyone who asks for time to study and consider it is defeatist or otherwise evil or defective. Remember when the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership’s Andrew Rudnick and people like that were trying shove the steel twin span down our throats, waving their fingers in the air and yelling that anyone who wanted to take time to give it some thought was defeatist and obstructionist?
The people have a right to have all aspects of this deal open for inspection before it is made, not after it is in place. We have a right to demand that it get the same measure of serious, honest, and meticulous examination now being given to the Peace Bridge expansion proposal. If a casino goes in here, the Senecas will own it and developers interested only in profits will develop it. The rest of us will have to live with it, and everything that comes with it, just as we now deal with the section of the Thruway that cuts us off from the waterfront, the Kensington expressway that bisected and destroyed otherwise healthy urban neighborhoods and encouraged middle-class flight from the city, the decision to locate UB in the suburbs, the Peace Bridge erosion of Front Park, and all those other public policy disasters that made us a city on the ropes rather than a city on the rise.
A Buffalo billionaire wants to put a casino on the publicly-owned waterfront land that planners have said would be the optimum location for a public beach. There is not a single lakefront location in the city where Buffalonians can do anything but stand and look at the water. For years that parcel of land has been vacant, used as dump for city junk, while local people who want to swim go to Angola or Canada. Mayor Masiello, a Malaysian billionaire and some local associates want to put casino in the heart of the city, right on Niagara Square, across the street from City Hall.
And we’re being urged to go along with this foolishness with less thought and public discussion that we give to the purchase of a new car or new house or what college our kids will attend. That is madness.
GUTS AND POLITICS
In politics, not doing something can be harder and take more intelligence and dedication than giving in to pressure from the rich and powerful.
When the powerful proponents of something stupid or unconsidered say, “Do you have a better idea?” it’s not easy to say, “I don’t have a better idea, but I know you’re just blowing smoke. This needs more time and thought.”
It may be far easier to yell “Charge!” and pretend that you’re doing something useful than it is to ask, “Should we even be here?” or “Are we on the right side of the line in the sand?”
Not doing something is abstract. Saying, “This bears careful inspection and thought” when you’ve got a rich and powerful developer like Carl Paladino making threats about how politicians who don’t move forward will be punished in the next election takes dedication and guts. Saying, “We’ve got to make sure this makes sense for our community” when the governor of the state is saying “Do what I say and you’ll all be rich. Don’t do what I say and don’t you dare come back to Albany saying I never do anything for you” takes guts, dedication, intelligence, and vision.
This gambling question isn’t simple or easy. I guess that’s the most important thing to know about it: it is neither simple or easy. Anyone who tells you it is either doesn’t understand the question or is operating with an agenda in which the public good matters not a bit.
PUT IT TO A VOTE
Put Pataki’s and Masiello’s proposal to rearrange the economic and social life of Buffalo to a vote. That way, if a casino goes in here and it screws up downtown as much as or more than previous urban planning has or as much as some of the doubters predict, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves. Blaming politicians and out-of-town business moguls for all our ills has gotten old. It’s time to take responsibility for our urban disasters.
Put it to a vote. If the mayor wants a task force to determine where a casino should go and what it should look like, let him have that task force – but only after we’ve had a chance to say whether or not we want or need that behemoth in our community in the first place.
Do a public and open environmental impact study and let the people who think this is a good idea come forward and make their case. Let them know that we demand more of them than, “Trust us,” or “There isn’t time to talk to you” or “If you knew what we know then you’d know how right we are.”
These choices outlive the terms of office of mayors and governors and they should not be monuments to or captives of election politics. Politicians want to get reelected, developers want to make money, promises from any of them are just air. Truth is in action, in what people do, and the consequences of those actions. It will take years for the real consequences of these choices to be known, years in which you and I and our children will still be here. What we do know now is, the governor and mayor don’t want it discussed at all and one major developer is threatening the political career of anyone who dares to interfere. That is intolerable. Ours are the higher stakes in this.
Put it to a vote.
copyright 2001 Bruce Jackson