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Casino Niagara Opens Amid Concern Over Local Economy

December 9, 1996

NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario (AP) _ The sound of slot machines rang out today as a Canadian casino began operating 100 yards from the U.S. border, amid expectations of Las Vegas-size revenues and the fears of rival businesses.

Predictions of 9,000 new jobs and more visitors to a city already flush with tourism have Canadian officials crowing about four-story, $118 million Casino Niagara.

Doors opened about 35 minutes before its scheduled 9 a.m. start to accommodate about 200 people, some of whom had been waiting since 4 a.m. in 25-degree temperatures.

Many of the first people to come in were locals who wanted to see the city’s newest attraction.

``We have a day off, and we just wanted to see what it looked like,″ said Rene Plouffe of Niagara Falls, who works at a horse track in nearby Fort Erie.

``I’m not a gambler, but I wanted to see it,″ said Pat Romeo of Niagara Falls, a middle-aged man accompanied by his two adult sons.

``I’m bringing my sons here this morning, and tonight I’m going to bring my wife,″ Romeo said.

Patrons were greeted with a Dixieland band, and many spent a few minutes wandering around the four-story gaming facility. By 9 a.m., the sound of slot machines created a din on the main gaming floor.

If the casino takes in as much as expected _ about $480 million a year _ it will be on the same scale as Las Vegas resorts such as the MGM Grand Hotel and the Mirage.

On the American side of the falls, however, people from all walks of life are wary of their new neighbor. Although some anticipate beneficial spinoffs, many are bracing for another blow to a local economy where growth occurs at a snail’s pace.

``I see these casinos as giant, money-sucking machines,″ said the Rev. Patrick Warren, a Presbyterian minister and chairman of a grass-roots group called Citizens Concerned About Casinos in Niagara Falls, N.Y. ``Every dollar put in a slot machine is a dollar not spent at a restaurant or a bowling alley.″

There’s little doubt the casino’s biggest winner will be its owner, the Ontario provincial government.

Through its Ontario Casino Corp., the government will collect a 20 percent tax on up-front earnings, then take all profits beyond expenses and the cut given to the Navegante Group, the Las Vegas-based operating company.

Navegante’s share will include a percentage of the games and depend on the number of visitors and total casino revenue. Dominic Alfieri, president of Ontario Casino Corp., estimates it will total $4.4 million to $7.4 million the first year.

Some leaders in western New York share their Canadian neighbors’ upbeat outlook. Jo Fisher, president of the Niagara Falls, N.Y., Visitors and Convention Bureau, said the casino would prove a major attraction on both sides of the border. Convention bookings are up to 57 from 41 at this time last year, she said.

Twenty miles to the south, however, Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello is more skeptical. He cites Casino Windsor, which Ontario opened just across from Detroit in 1994. Eighty percent of that casino’s patrons come from the United States.

``A lot of the money came over the bridge from Detroit to the casino in Windsor, and a lot of the problems went back over the bridge to Detroit,″ Masiello said.

Academics who have studied other casinos say Masiello’s fears are well-founded.

Ontario officials expect two-thirds of Casino Niagara’s customers to come from the United States, many drawn from the 2 million people in western New York, 1 million within an hour’s drive.

William Thompson, a professor of public administration at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, predicted the casino will increase pressure on New York’s Legislature to legalize casinos next year.

``That strategy is called fighting fire with fire,″ Goodman said. ``The problem is, you just get a bigger fire _ more gambling and more addicts.″