NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. - There's a new thunder in Niagara Falls these days.
Rumbling up from the floor of the remodeled Niagara Falls Convention
Center, nearly 3,000 slot machines roar with electric energy generated by
the nearby power plant. Indeed, the very same Niagara waters that break
over the mighty cataracts, just a few hundred yards from restored Seneca
Nation lands in the heart of the city, are providing the power for an
economic advance destined to return the Seneca people to their position as
political and economic leaders in their ancient homelands.
Indian Country Today editors sat down with Cyrus Schindler, chairman of the
Seneca Gaming Commission, in the management offices of the Seneca Niagara
Casino, not long after the opening of the Nation's second, of three
casinos, on their Allegany territory in Salamanca. Schindler, a former
ironworker and construction supervisor and president of the Seneca Nation
during compact negotiations with New York's Governor Pataki, talked openly
about the compact, about the casino's financing and management, and about
Seneca Nation plans for the future. Following is the second installment of
Indian Country Today: Tell us about the Seneca Nation's entrance into
Indian gaming and your first meetings with Governor Pataki.
Cyrus Schindler: They set up a meeting between me and the governor. Well, I
took six councilors with me and he had three or four lawyers. But I'll tell
you, the councilors that I took knew that there was Class II, Class III and
knew about gaming. And I was fairly familiar myself. So Gov. Pataki sat
there and we sat here like each other, and so he says, "I believe in your
sovereignty." And I say, "Yeah, and I believe in yours too." I was just
fighting him on the Thruway and was arrested, you know, but I put my
personal things aside. My job was to do the best for the nation.
So we sat there and we started talking about gaming, and he's asking his
guys, "Is this true," and they're going, "Well, yeah." He wasn't informed
on the thing. So it kind of showed what we were. And I more or less told
him, I said: "Look, a compact don't mean nothing to me. If I can make $10
million more in my bingo halls, I've done good for the nation." And we did.
We increased [revenues] like from $4 million to $20 million.
And we went ahead. They wanted it. The stars were aligned. He promised the
city of Niagara Falls he was going to do something. He had an election year
coming up, and this and that. And they gave us a stack what they had done
with their compact, and I gave it to one of our attorneys and said: "Look,
you take this thing and you turn it around. Make it as thin as you can and
I said you make it favor the nation."
He did. He got it down to 29 pages, and everything was in favor of the
nation. But to give what they want? No.
ICT: How did you arrive at the revenue sharing percentage? It features a
graduated scale leading up to 25 percent?
Schindler: Right. And everybody looked at the Mohegan Sun or Foxwoods, and
that was at 25 percent. But [the Mashantucket Pequots] Foxwoods has
exclusivity. The state can't even start lotteries there without their
permission. The Mohegans had to get permission from the Pequots to have
gaming. So they get a lot for what they've got. And if you look at the side
agreements that's the price of doing business. And that's how we looked at
it here. We had slot machines, which were illegal in New York state. We
changed the legislation to do that. We have exclusivity [of geographic coverage] to Seneca Lake. This land and the building here [the Niagara Falls Convention Center] they transferred to us for a dollar.
ICT: You're paying revenue sharing on what?
Schindler: The slots.
ICT: And you have to have a certain number of slots?
Schindler: No. And a lot of compacts across the country say you can only
have so many. We can have all the slot machines we want.
ICT: Or as little as you want?
Schindler: Yes. There's nothing saying [we have to have slots.]
ICT: You guys tried to negotiate a lower revenue sharing agreement?
Schindler: Oh yeah.
ICT: But that's a position the state just wouldn't budge on?
Schindler: Well, they just kept giving us more. Like, the building for a
dollar transfer. The whole 50 acres [in downtown Niagara Falls], they'll
use eminent domain on it if we can't buy it in a peaceful transaction. We
have to pay the bond off on this building,
ICT: How much is that?
Schindler: $21 million or something like that, but they transferred it [the land] to us right away for one dollar. So we got the land for a dollar. So
from our settlement act fund, we drew a dollar out of there to purchase
this land, for 12 acres. And there were different things like that involved
in there and that's how we came up with the percentage.
ICT: And how long is the compact for?
Schindler: It's for 14 years, with another seven years option renewal.
ICT: So the Seneca felt you'd gotten enough out of state, plus you got
three facilities covering the entire western region of the state.
Schindler: We felt we got quite a bit out of that revenue share we had to
ICT: At the same time, you wouldn't necessarily recommend that same
percentage for other tribes?
Schindler: It all depends what you're going to get for that. In the
Catskills it's an automatic 25 percent. Well, what are you going to give me
for your 25 percent? IGRA (Indian Gaming Regulatory Act) says you can't
just pay 25 percent for nothing. And that's why they looked at ours and we
had to sit down and explain this is what we got for what we're paying.
(Continued in Part Three)