New York Leaders Fall Behind Capitalizing on a Great Wonder

Article excerpt

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. -- The new attraction across the river is the biggest thing above the falls.

It announces its presence on the column of a 525-foot observation tower in huge red neon letters: C-A-S-I-N-O.

While peak tourist season is over -- the downtown here is virtually deserted except for some action around the Hard Rock Cafe - - Casino Niagara, open just a week, is packed. Friday, its two gaming floors were alive and kicking by 11 a.m. By midafternoon, every card table was busy and the slots were clinking and clanking like a high school band practice. The casino, once a mall, still looks a little like one. It has fountains and falls and restaurants and gift shops and an arcade center. The gaming halls have no windows. Inside, it is always 9 p.m. The children are tucked away for the night and it is still early enough for several hours of adult fun. This is just what people here have dreaded. Now there is another reason for tourists to pass over Niagara Falls, N.Y., for Niagara Falls, Ontario. Moreover, it is the same trump card the city was hoping to use to lure tourists away from Canada. "It's definitely going to hurt us," said Sylvia Virtuoso, who runs an upholstery store and is a member of the Niagara Falls Coalition for Casino Gaming. "People are just going to drive right through downtown to the bridge because, except for a restaurant or two, why should they stay?" For years, Niagara Falls, like the Catskills, has been lobbying Albany to legalize casino gambling. A casino was supposed to be the way out of a slump that has made the downtown look sad and tired even during the high season. It was supposed to offset Canada's better view of the falls and the missteps of Niagara Falls, N.Y., in plotting tourist attractions. It was going to obliterate magically the line in tourist guidebooks that there is more to see and do on the Canadian side. Ontario officials expect that two-thirds of Casino Niagara's patrons will come from the United States, many from the 2 million people in western New York, 1 million within an hour's drive. …