Seneca Nation Thunders Back in Western New York: PART ONE

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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 Robert Moses Niagara 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 this internationally
recognized destination city, are providing the power for an economic
advance destined to return the Seneca people to a position of political and
economic leadership 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 planned
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.

Indian Country Today:How many jobs will be created at the Seneca Allegany
Casino?

Cyrus Schindler:I think there was like 1,500. Maybe it's 3,500 jobs we've
created total [to date].

And this is what I always thought, to help the region, to help the nation,
and casinos will help the nation. Now my vision, and I think everybody
else's, I would like to say that in five years this place will create 8,000
jobs total.

ICT: 8,000 jobs. Just in the Seneca Niagara facility?

Schindler:
Just in the Niagara facility. Allegany will create probably
3,000, something like that, with the resort area down there. And the
Buffalo-Erie one I don't even want to comment on that right now.

ICT: We've been following that issue in The Buffalo News.

Schindler: And it's really something that takes you away from being focused
on what you're really doing. I like to stay focused on what I'm doing and
let [our team] deal with that when I've got bigger fish to fry over here.
And it's coming. We've got a board that deals with that. It will come in a
while.

ICT:
Let's talk about your organization's structure and long-term vision.
There are two corporations?

Schindler:
There are three. Well there's the parent corporation, the Seneca
Gaming Corporation, and then every one of our facilities, Seneca Niagara
Falls, Seneca Erie, and Seneca Territory down in Allegany. And it seems it
is working.

ICT: That was the goal, to keep he politics at arm's length?

Schindler:
Well, yeah, but they're short arms [laughter]. You'll find that
anywhere. But like a councilor they have to deal with a lot of issues,
day-to-day issues within the nation. You know we have tax issues we're
working on. We're trying to get education. We have a big mold problem [in housing], which they have all over the country. We're going to test this
and there are some houses we've got to get rid of - you know do abatement
on them and build new houses.

And this is another thing we're looking at. We're trying to get away from a
lot of the federal grants. I looked at it and, I was new in politics
three-and-a-half years ago. I lived on the reservation and I stood and
looked through the windows and said, "Gee, they could do this and they
could do that. That's plain and simple." But when I got on the other side
of the window, it's not as plain and simple as you think it is to do
anything. But, trying to get away from some of the federal and state grants
and doing things ourselves where the nation's got control.

ICT: In terms of education policy what is the plan of the Seneca Nation? Is
it the hope that the nation will be able to pay for college education for
every student who wants one?

Schindler: Right. That's my personal goal and I think that's everyone's.
We're also putting more money into education and we have a pre-school, a
day care center, which is too small, that we just built. And I was just
talking to the director and said come up with a plan of what you need and
I'll work on getting it through for you.

And on the other hand we want to get [Seneca] customs and language back in
so we start teaching these kids in day care the customs and language, and
that's the best place to teach them. And I see it now, language is more and
more in the school systems and day care, and kids are going home and
teaching the parents some of this language.

ICT: Sounds like there are obviously a lot of needs in the Seneca Nation.

Schindler: Oh there are.

ICT: And that's primarily one of the reasons why the IGRA was established,
so that tribal governments can build their capacities, but you're just
getting started.

Schindler: Yeah, we've been at this 16, 17 months.

ICT: You have all these needs in the community versus just getting going
with your enterprises. How are you balancing out that sort of tension?

Schindler: It's hard. You know, they hear from the newspaper you made $400
million, they go well where's our share? Well, that's a gross. It goes
here, it goes there. So we did a presentation to the council. The people
that were there, after they give the presentation and accounting for all
the money, we built this room here and we built the parking ramp, you know
stuff that you really need, and they applauded our team for the investment.
But you don't have people who really understand or have the long-range
vision. And my easiest thing is to say that with any business it takes
three to five years to get an income out of, but we've been giving back to
the nation.

ICT: One of the things criticized was your financing arrangement, the
high-interest loan. Can you tell us on the record how that all came about?

Schindler: We had a deadline to get this started if we were going to open
by New Years [2003]. We had to put a new roof on here, and it had to be
within a certain temperature, and we had some people that gambled a lot
with us, and we started. We didn't have a cent to form this corporation,
and we went to every financial institution. We were constantly going to
banks and da-da-da, and all these places and everybody said, "Well, when
you're in business for a year, we'd probably loan you some money." And then
our compact wasn't ratified and the land wasn't transferred from the
Interior Department yet, and we were going to go. And we started. You know,
we started.

And then K.T. Lim [the Malaysian from Genting] came down, and there were
negotiations. I tell you, he wanted a lot more. He usually gets a lot more.
And I just, I'm not giving up. And he had me right there, because I had to
start it. But he was the only one to step up. He wanted the Buffalo
[casino] and the title for 14 years, guaranteed, and there was no way. And
finally we came to [an agreement of] 29 percent for five years, and that
was about the best we were going to do. So we went with that. It was a hard
pill for me to swallow because when I first went into my business, my smoke
shop, I maxed out five credit cards at 25 percent interest to get started,
because the banks did the same thing to me. "Well, you've got no track
record," they said. I had cash but it took more than what I had, and within
a year or two we paid them all off and then our business grew and
everything is now paid for. So it was a stepping-stone.

ICT: It's the same old story. It's not until you have money that they'll
give you money.

Schindler: Now everybody wants to be our friend. Jeez, every bank's
knocking at our door. Same thing in my personal business. Now every banker
around is sending me stuff. Hey, we want to lend you money. Hey, do you
want to sell your business?

(Continued in Part Two)