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NIGA 'Rising Leader' Joanne Israel Promoted to Manage Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino

One of the National Indian Gaming Association's (NIGA) rising leaders is shooting up the career ladder.

Seneca tribal member Joanne Israel has taken on the general manager role at the rapidly growing Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino in Western New York. The resort destination, situated in the heart of downtown Buffalo’s burgeoning Inner Harbor area, is in the midst of a $40 million expansion. In 2013, the Seneca Nation debuted its $130 million re-design of the casino after a three-year pause on the project due to the economic recession.

RELATED: Seneca Nation Unveils Re-Designed $130 Million Buffalo Creek Casino

Work Begins on $40 Million Expansion Project at Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino

The former corporate director of finance operations for Seneca Gaming Corporation received NIGA’s inaugural Rising Leader Award at the organization’s annual convention in San Diego in spring 2015. The award’s purpose is to recognize the next generation of leaders — and Israel has definitely stepped into that league.

"The magnitude of responsibility that goes into these very productive gaming operations in Indian country is remarkable and it is this hard work that builds towards a stronger, progressive future," said NIGA Chairman Ernest L. Stevens. "The Rising Leaders have grown in our industry through experience and education. We continue to count on this kind of rising leadership in order for us to continue to keep our industry strong."

As anticipated, Israel is moving up. She joined Seneca Gaming Corporation in 2011, held a series of finance positions including casino controller and, most recently, corporate director of finance operations. "Since joining Seneca Gaming Corporation, Joanne has distinguished herself as an effective and insightful leader and key contributor to our team," said Audrey Oswell, the company’s chief operating officer. "We are confident that her talents and leadership will help Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino continue to emerge as a premier part of the Buffalo entertainment experience people enjoy each time they visit downtown and the Inner Harbor area."

Now she'll lead Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino, which attracts approximately 3 million guests per year, and oversee a staff of 500 that will increase to 800 by the time the expansion is completed in early 2017. Seneca Creek Buffalo Casino will begin its hiring process in early fall. "We are hiring all types of gaming and non-gaming positions, from table games dealers to public area attendants and everything in between," Israel told Indian Country Today Media Network. "We will be expanding every department to ensure this expansion is a success."

The casino currently features more than 800 slots and 22 table games. "We have extremely high utilization across our floor," Israel said. "Our strategy is to add more capacity for our patrons to enable them to play their favorite machines."

By early 2017, Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino will add more than 300 additional slot machines, new table games, and a new restaurant: the WD Bar and Grille, modeled after the popular Western Door Steakhouse, an elegant and acclaimed steakhouse at both Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino in Niagara Falls and Seneca Allegany Resort & Casino in Salamanca. "Over the next year, we will be working to ensure that construction and hiring in regard to our $40 million expansion project continues to go smoothly. The project includes additional gaming, dining and retail offerings which will provide an enhanced experience for our guests. Over the next five years, we will continue to diversify our offerings, whether it be food and retail or gaming. Our goal is to continue to evolve with the Buffalo community and our patrons," Israel said.

Artist renderings of the exterior of the expanded Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino

The casino is uniquely situated in the rapidly developing Cobblestone District along Buffalo's Inner Harbor, located only two blocks from the First Niagara Center, home of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, and just minutes from the Peace Bridge to Fort Erie, Canada, and a half-hour from Niagara Falls. Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino has helped lead the charge to revitalize the waterfront and restore economic growth to the former industrial area of Buffalo’s re-emerging Inner Harbor. Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino is built on 9.5 acres of the Seneca Nation of Indians’ sovereign Buffalo Creek Territory.

"Unlike the resort properties at Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino in Niagara Falls and Seneca Allegany Resort & Casino in Salamanca, Seneca Buffalo Creek is a convenience location," Israel said. "Because we are located in the emerging Inner Harbor area of Buffalo and surrounded by several other destinations and amenities, like professional sports stadiums and other tourist attractions, Seneca Buffalo Creek offers a great location that guests can make part of their evening, stopping in before or after a hockey game or a show. We are also a downtown location, so many people like to meet up on their way home from work."

Beyond that, the casino has hassle-free parking "and extremely friendly employees. Our location is one of the property’s greatest attributes because we are right in the heart of a lot of activity," she said.

The casino’s primary demographic is the 30-45 year old range. "With the growth and excitement that Buffalo is seeing right now, particularly the Inner Harbor area where we are located, more and more young professionals are moving to Buffalo and the tourism market is also expanding," Israel told ICTMN. "A visit to Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino is part of that experience. We continue to evolve our brand to the urban, trendy, downtown professionals.

"To attract millennials, we will be updating our offerings via the $40 million expansion. We will be creating a fine dining experience with an amazing outdoor patio and bar that will cater to that crowd. We will also be cultivating a retail experience that will offer items attractive to millennials."

RELATED: How 'Gamifying' Slot Machines May Help Casinos Engage Millennials

Buffalo’s Inner Harbor is also a family destination, not only catering to adults but to children as well. "Canalside has expanded its offerings over the past few years, many restaurants of all genres are at your disposal and with the sports offerings right at our back door, the Inner Harbor is really the place to be," Israel said.

canalsidebuffalo.com

Canalside on Lake Erie in downtown Buffalo is a 21-acre park that offers concerts & kids' shows, water sports & simple lounging in Adirondack chairs.

Climbing the Ladder

Israel credits focus and perseverance with leading her to where she is today. She graduated from Niagara University, where she received both a bachelor of administration degree in accounting and a masters of business administration degree. “After college, I entered the public accounting field at a local firm" — Chiampou Travis Beshaw & Kershner, where she was a senior accountant specializing in tax, audit and government accounting. "I spent five years diversifying my finance background before starting with the Seneca Gaming Corporation," Israel told ICTMN. "I continued on in finance as the casino controller" for all three properties: Seneca Niagara Casino, Seneca Allegany Casino and Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino.

She also considers her leadership strategy as integral to her success. "My management style is collaborative and inclusive. I cannot do everything myself, and I fully believe a hardworking, dedicated team is what creates success. I routinely utilize ideas from my team, and include their input on decisions," Israel said.

Israel considers her promotions to corporate director of finance operations, and most recently general manager at Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino, as well as receiving the NIGA Rising Star award, as the greatest milestones of her career, she told ICTMN. Receiving the NIGA award in 2015 “validated a lot of the work that I did…,” Israel told Indian Gaming Magazine. She advises tribal members interested in leadership positions in Indian country: “You’re only going to go as far as your ambition goes," she told the publication. "Make sure you continue to have that drive and never settle for status quo." 

Numerous people inspired Israel’s success and career climb. "I have had multiple mentors throughout my time at Seneca Gaming Corporation. The company is known for its development of employees and continual education opportunities. And throughout my time here, I have had encouragement and help from many female members of Senior Management," Israel said.

Seneca Gaming is unique in that the company has many females in senior management and executive roles. "As a woman moving through her career path, I am fortunate to be able to reach out to these women for insight and encouragement," Israel said.

As a tribal member and female executive, Israel similarly inspires other young Native women to follow in her footsteps. She advises young professionals to obtain their schooling, certifications "and be known as a hard worker," she said. "By doing this, you will check every box and ensure your own destiny. Many times it is assumed women face challenges and that glass ceilings are still prevalent. If you are the best in your class, best in your field, best in your department, you will be successful."

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