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An Inclusive Approach to Economic Development

Buffalo Business First [ View Original Article ]

Two development meetings, held five days and about 75 miles apart, may go a long way toward laying a foundation for the region's future.

It began June 26 when the Seneca Nation of Indians brought together public-sector and quasi-public-sector economic development groups from Western New York and Pennsylvania to discuss how they can work collaboratively. The Senecas plan to build a permanent casino complex in downtown Buffalo and a possible expansion - though not in the immediate future - of casino operations in Salamanca and Niagara Falls.

"It's a matter of broadening our circle," said Robert Odawi Porter, president. "Why now? Why not now?"

Greg Edwards, Chautauqua County executive, called the meetings "not a step forward but a leap forward."

The Senecas' future will rest on a diversified economy, not one that relies solely on casino revenues or tobacco and fuel sales, according to Porter. To reach that goal, he wants to partner with the economic development agencies.

"My own notes are filled with things I think we should follow up on," he said.

The meetings, and a pledge for more gatherings, drew praise from many of the more than 40 economic leaders who attended a daylong session at the Seneca Allegany Casino & Hotel in Salamanca.

"I understand, clearer now, that we are all here to help each other," said Corey Witkor, executive director, County of Cattaraugus Industrial Development Agency.

Ditto for John Cappellino, executive vice president of the ECIDA.

"The Seneca Nation realizes it can't do economic development in a vacuum," Cappellino said. "You can't just build a casino and not think about what is going to go on around it."

The session was the latest in a series of outreach and collaboration by the Seneca Nation since Porter took office in December. It is under his watch that the gaming arm, Seneca Gaming Corp., is offering $1 million for landscaping and other aesthetic initiatives for properties near Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino and will provide Niagara County Community College's Niagara Falls culinary arts center with $1.28 million.

In the spring, when Verizon dropped plans for a massive data center in the Niagara County Town of Somerset - primarily because of a lawsuit filed by a nearby property owner - Porter reached out to the telecommunications giant to offer land owned by the Senecas. He said if there is a big project in the pipeline that may run into political problems, perhaps the Seneca Nation could step forward and offer property on sovereign land to protect the project and jobs.

That is just one example of how the Senecas can collaborate on economic development projects.

A financially and economically vibrant Seneca Nation of Indians will benefit the region as a whole, according to Porter. Various economic development agencies have ways to tap into programs and funds that aid both the region and the Seneca Nation.

"Capital movement doesn't necessarily end at state lines or sovereign territory boundaries," he said.

Edwards of Chautauqua County, meanwhile, said the region has a woeful track record when it comes to moving forward on economic development.

"We have not done a good enough job of bringing in the resources," he said. "We do need to coordinate our efforts better. We do that and we all win."

On June 28, Buffalo Urban Development Corp. got its first look at a master plan for the former Republic Steel property along the Buffalo River that has the potential to be the city's next development center. Potentially, the 260-acre RiverBend site could be home to more than 3.3 million square feet of new, mixed-use projects and some 3,500 workers.

Right now, the land sits empty.

Granted, the development isn't going to happen this year or next. Willa Small Kuh, Sasaki Associates senior associate and BUDC's lead consultant on the project, said it may take 30 years or more for RiverBend to reach its full potential.

The master plan is viewed in some quarters as "pie-in-the-sky," but at least the BUDC is willing to give it a good run. The development plan is designed in phases. It does not overload the property with any one type of development. Office space will be there, as well as warehouse and distribution space. One hotel may be built there, and plans also call for a residential component.

The bottom line is RiverBend will have to be aggressively marketed in order for it to be successful. If it is, it could be transformational for the city and region.

"The big asset here is the land sits on Buffalo's waterfront and the Buffalo River," said David Stebbins, BUDC vice president.