(Artvoice  28 June 2001)

Pataki's Running Game

by Bruce Jackson

For some months a shady character I know has been telling people that a gambling joint was going into the Statler Towers in downtown Buffalo. Most people who heard him dismissed that as a hustler’s pipedream. It now seems he had a pipeline, not a pipedream, to inside information from Governor George Pataki’s office.

Pataki, running hard for reelection and sensitive to charges that he’s done nearly nothing to help Western New York’s crippled economy, visited Niagara Falls last week and promised oodles and oodles of free money. He was surrounded by smiling Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Seneca Nation officials. He’d been having secret negotiations with Seneca leaders, he said, and they’d cut a deal to open three gambling casinos in the area—one in the Niagara Falls convention center, one in downtown Buffalo, and one somewhere else. Everybody, he said, would make out because the gambling joints would bring thousands of jobs and would stop the hemorrhage of US dollars in the gambling operation run by the Canadian government in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

The Senecas are at the heart of the casino project because only an Indian nation can help Pataki sidestep the obstacle that blocked casino gambling in this area before: you can’t build a gambling casino in New York State without a constitutional amendment. Such an amendment failed three years ago, in large part because New Jersey casino owner Donald Trump spent at least $3 million lobbying New York politicians to vote it down. But if New York recognizes the Seneca Nation as a sovereign entity and then transfers parcels of land to the Seneca Nation, that constitutional limitation doesn’t apply and all that is needed is approval by the legislature. The heavily-Republican State Senate approved the deal with hardly any discussion last Thursday; there may be some opposition in the Legislature, but probably not enough to derail the plan. So Pataki’s end-run around the New York Constitution seems likely to succeed.

I’d be as happy as anybody to see lots of new jobs and to see that money now squandered in Canada get squandered here instead.  And if there are going to be casinos here, I’d much rather they be owned by Senecas than some out-of-state corporation that would just take the money and run. But Governor Pataki’s promised pot of gold bears some looking at before we start singing hosannas about economic resurrection. The shady character I mentioned earlier wasn't having pipedreams, but I suspect a lot of other people around here are having them, eyes wide shut.

A casino might be good for Niagara Falls, New York, whose economy is in the sewer and needs something to compete with Niagara Falls, Ontario, whose economy used to be in the sewer until the Canadian government built its casino there. But it is very unlikely, as Assemblyman Sam Hoyt quickly and astutely pointed out, that tourists will come to Buffalo to pour money into the Statler slots. Niagara Falls is a tourist destination, Buffalo is not. If someone is coming from elsewhere to gamble, they’re most likely to go to the Falls, where they can take a break from the action and look at one of the natural wonders of the world. What are they going to look at here on their break—City Hall and the McKinley monument?

If a casino is going to do well here, it will do it by shifting money from other things here. There’s a limited pool of discretionary money anywhere, and discretionary money is very limited in an area as economically depressed as this one. Unlike Niagara Falls, Atlantic City, Las Vegas and other places where the money is mostly gambled away by strangers, the losses in a Buffalo casino (or profits, if you’re on the owners’ side) would in large part come from neighbors, from people who live in the Buffalo area.

Jobs? Other than construction, which is transitory, casinos bring mostly minimum and low wage jobs. Several studies have shown that every new casino job results in the loss of one to two local jobs that paid better wages. That’s because most of the money lost in casinos is discretionary money that previously went to local restaurants, theaters, clothing stores, bookstores, car dealers, dentists making braces for the kids (which is why Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Samuelson called it a “sterile transfer of money”). When those ordinary jobs go, the taxes paid by those workers and by the establishments that employed them go too.

The single category of work that consistently goes up around new casinos is crime: I know of no place that built a casino where the crime rates subsequently went any direction but up. Downtown developers have been bragging in recent years that they got the whores and pimps off of Chippewa street. Put a casino downtown and they’ll resurface on Main street and Niagara Square.

Money? The state is going to get approximately 25% of the profits and Buffalo and Niagara Falls will get 3% of that. Pataki officials estimate the State’s take over the first 14 years of the deal at $800 million. Buffalo’s 1.5% share of that is $12 million, or $857,142.57 per year.

Would $857,142.57 a year pay for the added cost of police protection downtown would surely need? Would it cover the amount of money going out of the community that otherwise would have stayed in it? Would it cover the social costs of people who cannot control their gambling? Would it cover the real estate taxes not paid on the casino and any property directly controlled by it?

Property values? The only people who’ll make money on property values will be people selling the place that will be the gambling joint, the owners of a few close-by hotels, and the owners of office space rented by the firms who will be kicked out of the Statler Tower. The only urban locations where gambling joints have not dragged the neighborhood down are locations where the surrounding neighborhoods had already bottomed out, places like Niagara Falls, Ontario, and Atlantic City or places where the entire town has grown up around gambling, like Las Vegas.

Image? How could anybody take seriously a city that located a gambling joint on the same plaza as its city and federal court buildings and its city hall? Instead of going to the BAC to work out during lunch hour, downtown employees will be able to go to the Statler lobby and shake hands with the one-armed bandit. There’s progress for you.

Speed? Governor Pataki says that if everyone cooperates and moves fast, two of the three gambling joints can be up and running by the end of next year. That, more than anything else, should start the warning lights flashing. This is a community which for decades has suffered the social and economic consequences of ill-conceived projects dreamt up and put into motion by politicians and businessmen meeting behind closed doors. Projects like the Kensington Expressway, which, the geniuses said, would make access to the city easier. So it did, but it also made egress from the city easier, so a huge number of middle-class families moved to the suburbs. And the road itself slashed through and destroyed several stable and previously quite lovely Buffalo neighborhoods. I’ll say nothing about dividing the city from its waterfront with the Thruway, moving UB to the Amherst swamps, plopping a bank office building across the foot of Main street, etc. etc. etc.

People around here have learned by bitter experience that any time a bunch of politicians and businessmen call a surprise press conference and say “This has to be done immediately if it’s going to work,” the only rational response is, “No, no it doesn’t. This has to be discussed openly and thought out carefully, if it’s to be done at all.”

Finally, a few words about the corruption of language. People who run gambling joints like to refer to their business as “gaming.”  The billboards and tv commercials for the Niagara Falls, Ontario, gambling joint use that word all the time. Joe Illuzzi’s newsletter for June 25 uses the word “gaming” in three different articles. According to the Buffalo News, Buffalo mayor Anthony Masiello said “The Senecas have insisted all along that Buffalo be the center of any gaming policy,” and Buffalo-Niagara Partnership president and CEO Andrew Rudnick said, “Some people might not like gaming, but from the overall point of view, it’s a significant step.” A June 26 editorial in the Buffalo News said “Properly handled, gaming could represent a powerful economic building block for this fragile region....”  Reporter Steven Watson’s article in the same edition about Grand Island residents’ concern that their land dispute with the Senecas had been compromised by Governor Pataki’s rush to have a press conference, used the phrases “gaming agreement,” “gaming approval,” and “gaming compact”; the word “gambling” never appeared once.

The word "gaming" was introduced by people running gambling joints as part of a very specific and expensive image campaign to gain respectability for a behavior that people who worried about vices used to include in the list of things they worried about.  No surprise that gambling joint operators should want to improve their image: the more social and respectable they seem the easier it is to convince mayors of depressed cities that it would be nice to let them locate across the street from city hall.

"Game" for most of us implies two sides, each with an equal chance, playing at something. But what goes on in a casino is like one team in hockey taking the ice with four men, one chess player being docked the Queen before the first pawn moves, one tennis player using a racket with a hole where the sweet spot ought to be. Casino action is not a game, and for the house it’s not even gambling. For the house, it’s a sure thing, a lock. The bettors are the only ones who gamble—gambling that they’ll be lucky enough to beat the odds, which are always against them.

When I was a kid growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn people talked about "running game." If somebody was running game on you or gaming you, they were feeding you a line, deceiving you, lying to you, hustling you, trying very hard to screw you.  Now, when I hear politicians, developers, casino operators and casino hucksters rambling on about all the good a casino will do downtown Buffalo and how much fun everyone will have playing in the new pleasure palace, I think of those old days on the streets, where people called things by their right names, for the right reasons.

copyright 2001 Bruce Jackson

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