From aging convention center to Falls casino in 100 days

December 31, 2022 | By Mark Scheer |

NIAGARA FALLS — Rickey Armstrong Sr. remembers walking into the old Niagara Falls Convention and Civic Center on Fourth Street and wondering: “What did we get ourselves into here?”

Armstrong, the current president of the Seneca Nation of Indians, who, back in 2002, was just embarking on his first of what would be three terms as Nation president, recalls seeing cracks in the convention center walls, pools of water on floors and exposed wires inside the building. It was his first tour of the space and his initial thoughts were: “This was impossible.”

“I was shocked,” he said. “I thought ‘how are we ever going to be able to transform this?’”

Not only did the Nation turn the aging convention into a casino, but it did so in 100 days, a feat that, in its time, was regarded as a significant accomplishment, given the long history of development delays and outright failures in the Falls.

Hitting that 100-day mark remains a point of pride, according to Armstrong who said the quick turnaround was important not only to prove that the Nation could get the job done but also to ensure that the Nation’s first foray into Class III casino gaming got off to a strong start.

Armstrong noted that, at the time, the Nation had just agreed to borrow the funds to cover the building renovations. He remembers feeling some pressure about the need to begin the process of paying the loan back as soon as possible.

“We figured every day we are not in operation, we are losing money,” Armstrong said. “We thought it was important to do.”

Kevin Nephew, the current president and chief executive officer of the Seneca Gaming Corp., said he had a similar reaction to Armstrong’s when he got his first look at the aging Niagara Falls Convention and Civic Center building.

Nephew, who is the first Seneca Nation member to lead the gaming corporation, said he believes the project came together so well and so quickly for two of the same reasons why he believes the casino continues to operate successfully two decades later: Commitment and teamwork.

“It’s amazing what everyone can accomplish when they are on the same page,” Nephew said. “I’m astounded by what was done 20 years ago. My mouth kind of drops to think how much was done, especially in 100 days.”

The Nation’s property in downtown Niagara Falls has undergone a lot of changes since the casino first opened.

In 2005, the Nation celebrated the completion of a $200 million project that added the 26-story, 604-room hotel and additional gaming space.

In 2019, Seneca gaming officials announced plans for a $40 million “arrival experience” that renovation of the Seneca Niagara event center, hotel front entrance, mezzanine and lobby bar.

Seneca One Stop, a convenience store, gas station and smoke shop, opened near the casino and hotel in 2016.

Earlier this year, Seneca officials announced the construction of Nativa Cannabis, 2,500-square-foot marijuana dispensary that is being built on the Falls casino’s footprint next to the One Stop location.

Nephew said he views the “arrival experience” project as one of the best investments the gaming corporation has ever made because he believes it not only offers an attractive entrance to the casino property but also an inviting feel for visitors who are arriving in the Falls via the John B. Daly Boulevard exit off the Robert Moses Parkway.

“That just doesn’t make our property look great. It really makes the welcome to the City of Niagara (Falls) look great,” Nephew said. “I think to myself just that little piece is welcoming. It makes a visitor feel different and they come back.”