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Joseph Spector

Senecas eye downtown Rochester casino in new gaming compact

The Seneca Nation of Indians is negotiating with the Hochul administration to build a casino in downtown Rochester. | Ted Shaffrey/AP Photo

ALBANY, N.Y. — The Seneca Nation of Indians and the Hochul administration have been quietly negotiating plans for a casino in downtown Rochester as part of a new gaming compact for the Western New York tribe, according to officials familiar with the discussions.

The private talks shocked local leaders in Rochester late Friday as the state Legislature was preparing before the end of session to approve a bill authorizing the governor's office to negotiate a new compact with the Senecas, who already have three casinos in the Buffalo area.

The bill passed the Senate, but was not approved in the Assembly amid concerns from Rochester leaders and neighboring gambling facilities about the impact of a casino in the city. In particular, the del Lago Casino in the Finger Lakes has about 1,000 union jobs represented by the powerful Hotel and Gaming Trades Council.

"I learned of it pretty late last night. I was extremely concerned about it," Assemblymember Harry Bronson (D-Rochester) said in an interview Saturday with POLITICO. "This is something that should be seriously discussed in an open and transparent way, and if the rumor is correct and they are considering potentially downtown Rochester or even in the surrounding area of Rochester, local folks should have a say in this."

The Hochul administration did not respond for comment.

Bronson said when he reached out to Hochul's office about the prospect of a Rochester casino being part of the compact, he was told it couldn't discuss it because of a non-disclosure agreement, which he called "extremely inappropriate."

The Senecas have long eyed Rochester and Monroe County as a way to expand in Western New York. But its efforts never have come to fruition, and it didn't bid on an open parcel of land in the heart of the city in 2016.

The Senecas have been pushing for a new compact because the current one expires at year's end, and the sides would need a law to authorize the governor's office to sign off on a new 20-year compact. The Assembly wrapped up its session Saturday, but are expectd back in the coming weeks when the issue could be revisited.

On Wednesday, the Senecas announced an "agreement in principle" with Hochul's office on a new compact, but declined to give any specifics.

On Saturday, the tribe urged unsuccessfully for the Assembly to vote on the legislation to give the administration the ability to "finalize and submit that agreement as required by federal law."

“We have come to a fair deal with the State, and it is incumbent of them to hold up their side of the bargain. The State Senate has already passed the bill providing the Governor authority to complete the deal, and we strongly encourage the Assembly to do the same,” Seneca Nation president Rickey Armstrong, Sr. said in a statement.

He also said the union supports labor unions and, without mentioning a Rochester casino, "a compact represents an opportunity for new and continued jobs that are vital to our region. It is our goal to add more jobs to the entire region, including more union jobs."

Meanwhile, Gov. Kathy Hochul has recused herself from the negotiations because her husband, Bill, is an executive at Delaware North, the Buffalo-based hospitality company that owns Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack in nearby Farmington, Ontario County.

If a Rochester casino was to move forward, the Senecas would need to buy land and then win federal approval to make it sovereign land to build a casino.

The tribe and the state have been at odds for year. The tribe had a five-year legal battle over paying casino revenue to the state. The dispute ended last year when the Senecas agreed to pay the state $566 million — which Hochul said is being used to pay for a new Buffalo Bills stadium.

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