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Senecas Add Former Splash Park To Falls Holdings

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  • Senecas Add Former Splash Park To Falls Holdings

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    Senecas Add Former Splash Park To Falls Holdings

    Plans call for expanding gambling resort; 10 more acres remain to be acquired


    NIAGARA FALLS - The state seized a privately held outdoor splash park and
    parking lot Thursday for the Seneca Gaming Corp., expanding the nation's
    downtown holdings.

    With the handover of the deed, 17 acres next to the Seneca Niagara Casino &
    Hotel are officially sovereign land now - off the tax rolls of the county,
    city and school district.

    A corporation spokesman said the water park will not reopen and the land
    will be used to expand the Seneca gambling resort.

    "We're aggressively looking at development and expansion options," spokesman
    Philip Pantano said. "We don't have [anything specific] at this point.
    Obviously, it's a major addition and acquisition for us because it was the largest
    remaining parcel within the nation's territory."

    Pantano was referring to a 50-acre section of downtown land promised to the
    Senecas under a state compact signed by Gov. George E. Pataki in 2002.

    The Senecas opened a gambling hall in the former Niagara Falls Convention
    and Civic Center on New Year's Eve 2002 and a 26-story hotel late last year, but
    much of the so-called footprint remains available for other projects.

    Pantano estimated Seneca Gaming now owns most of the footprint but needs
    about 10 more acres. The Empire State Development Corp. - the state's economic
    development agency - is expected to acquire that land on behalf of the company
    through more eminent domain proceedings.

    That means more space for downtown gambling-related development, but less
    for the local tax rolls.

    The former Fallsville Splash Park at John B. Daly and Rainbow boulevards
    paid an annual tax bill of nearly $700,000 to the county, city and Niagara Falls
    school district.

    However, the state compact calls for the Senecas to set aside a certain
    percentage of slots revenues for the "host municipality" to offset the loss of
    property taxes and other items, and to spur non-Seneca development. The City of
    Niagara Falls will receive about $10.6 million from 2004 and 2005 slots

    The casino and hotel employ about 3,000 workers, Pantano said.

    Fallsite LLC, the owner of the splash park, received an "advance payment"
    from the Seneca Gaming Corp. before the state filed its eminent domain order in
    court Wednesday, according to Fallsite partner and Falls attorney John P.
    Bartolomei. He would not detail the price, although he said it was based on "the
    highest appraisal given."

    The city has assessed the Fallsite land at about $8.5 million. The final
    purchase price will be decided by a trial in State Supreme Court in Niagara

    Bartolomei said he's happy he decided not to appeal the eminent domain case
    because he believes the Senecas will bring positive development to that
    section of the city.

    That's a far different sentiment from last year, when Bartolomei decried
    Seneca land pursuits and said the rights of other property owners would be
    violated if the state forced the sale of land simply to pass it to a sovereign
    nation with no official plan for development. While the attorney said he still
    believes that, he explained his turnaround as being pro-development.

    Bartolomei also is the lawyer who represents Niagara Falls Redevelopment, a
    local development firm backed by Manhattan real estate billionaire Howard
    Milstein. That company controls Fallsite and owns about 100 acres across the
    street from the casino, which means Seneca development is expected to benefit
    Niagara Falls Redevelopment.

    "Had we done the challenge, I think we would have won," Bartolomei said.
    "But we would have wound up in court for four years. . . . We would have
    retarded development."

    Pantano called the Niagara Falls casino the "flagship territory" of Seneca

    "Eventually we want to offer our patrons three distinct environments," he
    said, referring to Seneca casinos in the Falls and Salamanca, and a planned
    casino in Buffalo.

    "This is more of the full-service resort destination," he said of the
    presence in the Falls. "It just makes sense with the falls a couple blocks away.
    Niagara Falls is in itself a tourist destination, so the Niagara Falls casino
    has been developed in a manner that competes with large scale full-service
    casino resorts."

    Several other property owners within the promised Falls' footprint are
    worried about more than downtown development. Patricia Van Egmond wanted to keep
    her tidy two-family home on Fifth Street last year and hired an Albany lawyer
    to help her appeal the eminent domain proceedings.

    But Van Egmond and two other property owners who appealed recently agreed to
    drop their cases before they got to an Appellate Court judge and will settle
    out of court.

    Van Egmond now just wants enough time to find a new place to live. The view
    from her front window is "a little bit different" than it has been for the
    past several decades, she said this week.

    The Van Egmond home faces the former Ramada Inn on Rainbow Boulevard, sold
    to the Senecas last year. Recently, the contents were emptied and a retaining
    fence was put up in preparation for possible demolition.

    "In the long run I think it will be better because I heard they're going to
    put a parking ramp where the hotel is," Van Egmond said. "I think we're going
    to take the buyout. I don't want that across the street from my house."

    Pantano would not release the plans for the hotel Thursday, nor would he
    confirm or deny reports that it is set to be demolished next week to build a new
    parking ramp. The Senecas are not required to submit demolition applications
    or site plans with the city.

    Van Egmond, 72, said she has decided to stay in Niagara Falls to be close to
    her family.

    "I'm adjusting to it," she said. "It has to be, I guess."

    e-mail: [email protected]_ (mailto:[email protected])
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