(Blue Dog, 1 November 2001)

Building Buffalo

Sam Hoyt:
“Be careful—you might get what you ask for”

by Bruce Jackson

A few weeks ago, Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello released a plan for the city’s development centering on a downtown invigorated by an entertainment and mercantile triangle defined by a new casino and convention center. The plan, prepared a group of Buffalo businessmen and architects, also recommended restoration of Joseph Ellicott’s radial street plan, covering much of route 190 to provide access to the waterfront, and creation of a symbolic structure to mark the city’s revitalization.

On October 24, the New York Legislature passed an omnibus bill, one small section of which authorized the largest expansion of gambling operations in the state’s history. The law permits electronic slot machines in most of the state’s racetracks, New York participation in the multistate Powerball lottery, and gambling casinos in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and the Catskills.

William B. “Sam” Hoyt III, who has represented Grand Island and several sections of Buffalo in the New York Assembly since 1992, has long been a vigorous opponent of a casino in Buffalo. We asked him to comment on the likely impact of the October 24 legislation and the new city development plan. This is a portion of our conversation.

We have now passed this legislation and casinos are imminent. I’ve been against casinos since the get-go, but I’ve said that if there was to be a casino, the only way it could possibly help the community is if there was a very substantial local windfall, new money that could be used creatively to help move this region forward.

The most that the local governments will see as a result of this legislation is $7 million a year to be divided between the county and the city. That’s totally inadequate to cover the additional municipal cost that the city will have to shoulder as a result of the casino—additional police and fire services, public works, roads, traffic services, not to mention the human costs, the human services of addiction and treatment and bankruptcy, and more.

There are, thankfully, several more roadblocks that have to be overcome, beginning with the referendum at the Seneca reservation, which most people anticipate passing; Federal approval of whatever compact is agreed to between the governor and the Senecas; and finally what I think is our best hope of stopping this, a lawsuit that will challenge the constitutionality of having slot machines in the state of New York.

Most of the Buffalo casino gambling would be done by local people, so this casino legislation would move a lot of money out of the county to the Senecas, to whatever private developers they hook up with, and to Albany.

Assembly Speaker Silver is the only person who acted responsibly in dealing with this whole issue of gambling by delaying it for many months. The reason he delayed it was because the proposal by George Pataki was inadequate in a lot of ways, but principally on the local share. To Shelly’s credit, we doubled the local share, and I’m sure he would have preferred more, but the fact is we didn’t get more. It ends up being a windfall for the State of New York and for the Senecas, but there isn’t a windfall for the localities.

None of the studies that were done included the three casinos in the Catskills, or September 11 and the impact that that’s going to have on people traveling. We’ve already seen that September 11 has crushed Las Vegas and their revenues. The studies did not include the additional gambling opportunities that were included in the bill. There will now be video lottery terminals—VLTs—at virtually every racetrack in the state. A VLT is just another word for a slot machine. If in fact slot machines are the big draw—I’m told you go to Fort Erie racetrack and you see thousands of people flocking there—then people who are drawn to slot machines for their gambling experience will have endless opportunities to go to places other than Buffalo through these racetrack opportunities across the state.

I’ve said, “Be careful—you might get what you ask for.” In this case, we’ve got it and it’s potentially going to be a huge problem. It’s only days since the measure has been passed and now other people—including the Buffalo News—are saying “This is a mistake, it’s a mistake that this legislation has passed.”

I hope that I’ll be wrong about all the fears that I’ve  had and have articulated, and that thousands of new jobs will be created, that people will be raising healthy families on a blackjack dealer’s salary, and that scores of new corporations will flock to Buffalo because we’ve got a casino, and that the local restaurants and entertainment venues will not be hurt because of the casino. I hope that people down the road will say, “Hey, Hoyt, you were wrong.” And I’ll say, “Thank God I was wrong.”

What about the new development plan for Buffalo?

There very well may be no pot of money to set aside to finance the big vision in that new development plan, not to mention any of the projects that are currently on the table that in my opinion are more important than the development proposal.

I think that all of the players involved deserve great credit for thinking big, for trying to articulate a long term vision for the city of Buffalo, for downtown Buffalo. and I commend them and applaud them for that.  There are many components to the plan which are laudable and which have my strong support and which certainly would be included on a master wishlist if I were to create one.

But one of the problems that I have with this grand new vision is that we as a community have great difficulty being focused. I have a list of probably 30 projects, some good, some bad, totaling over two billion dollars that are already on the table. We, as a community, have to take an inventory of what our capital projects are and somehow reach a decision as to how we want to prioritize them and then we need to go forward and try to complete them. That’s what has been one of Buffalo’s biggest problems over the years. We need to create the roadmap for what the future of Buffalo ought to be. It’s very possible that some of the Quinn-Mendell-Hamister-et al vision is or will be included in that roadmap. But I think that currently on the table there are several initiatives that are not included in the master plan which are far more important than anything discussed in it.

For example?

There is nothing more important to the future of this city than restoring confidence in our public education system. One way to do that is through this great initiative that was passed by the state legislature last year, which allows the city to go forward with complete rehabilitation of every school in the district and the new construction of up to six new schools. That is not only an extraordinary opportunity in terms of improving education in the facilities in which children learn, but it’s an extraordinary economic development opportunity as well. It’s nearly a billion dollars worth of construction in a ten to fifteen-year period. A billion dollars. Unheard of.

Ninety or 94% of that money is free money. It’s free money in the sense that the state will reimburse us for 90 or 94 percent of every dollar we spend. That means, “We’ll give you $900 million if you find $100 million.” Well, shame on us if we don’t find that ten percent. The opportunity to use $100 million to leverage $900 million is extraordinary, and if we miss it it will be the worst thing that ever happened to us. Our exclusive focus, in my opinion, as community leaders, should be completing that project, finding the local share, the local percentage, for that school reconstruction.

Before we can revitalize the economy of Buffalo we need to bring back those middle-income taxpayers that fled to the suburbs, and you will not bring them back to the city—many of them would love to return to the city—until you can give them confidence that the public education system is working, and this would be a large step in that direction.

Number two is Buffalo’s inner harbor waterfront development. There’s been a lot of debate and discussion and delay over the original plan, which was described kind of a concrete development down on the waterfront which you can see in any community, as opposed to the authentic canal district concept with the original commercial slip. Because of community involvement we now have a great plan. We have about $30 million in hand to do that project. With the revisions and improvements, we probably need another $10 million. Well, for god’s sake, finish it! Buffalo became a great city because of its proximity to the water, and it will become a greater city again if we recognize the value of our waterfront and develop it appropriately. We need to finish that job.

Those are the types of things that I’m thinking ought to be on the front burner in terms of Buffalo’s capital investment.

What about the convention center?

We all too often look for the silver bullet to solve our problems and certainly I would describe casino gambling as such. I think that the convention center is as well. People say, “Build the convention center and just imagine the spinoff that’s going to create.” They said the same thing when they built that last convention center, which is the world’s ugliest building. Show me the economic development, the economic spinoff that that created. Very little, very very little. We accepted the premise and the promise that economic spinoff was going to occur. Why should we repeat that same mistake? Those who will benefit the most from it allegedly are those who are the biggest promoters of it.

I’m not convinced we have to have a mega convention center in the city of Buffalo at a time when the economy is hurting, a time when it will be difficult to find the money to pay for it, and a time when we have other priorities that will without question have a greater economic and positive impact on this community than a new convention center.

Is there any way the city of Buffalo could just say no to a casino?

Yes. The city of Buffalo can, I believe, deny permits. They could certainly go to the governor today and say, “Don’t sign the compact. Take us out.” The memorandum of understanding gives Buffalo the out simply by saying that they don’t want the casino built. If Buffalo says they don’t want it, then I’m sure that it could be stopped.

This is the second in a series of interviews about Buffalo’s future. The first, with Mark Mendell, president of Cannon Design, appeared in Blue Dog October 18 and 25. Next week: Buffalo Common Council President James Pitts. All interviews in the series are on line at http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~bjackson/articles.html.

copyright 2001 Bruce Jackson