Niagara Falls gambles on a windowless casino to encourage reluctant tourists

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Niagara Falls, the scenic destination that was once the honeymoon capital of the world, has opened a casino in an attempt to revive its flagging tourism industry.

Niagara Falls, the scenic destination that was once the honeymoon capital of the world, has opened a casino in an attempt to revive its flagging tourism industry.

The windowless casino is a mark of desperation from the city on the American side of the falls to attract more visitors to its roaring water and hanging mists. The depressed community, stricken by high unemployment, believes the casino may be the only chance to turn around the city's fortunes.

Claudia Miller, an executive with the Niagara-USA Chamber, a body set up to revitalise the city, said: "Niagara County in general is depressed. There is high unemployment ... and we have a pretty much crumbling infrastructure."

The Seneca Niagara Casino, which opened on New Year's Eve, employs 2,000 people, two thirds of whom live locally. This represents an annual payroll of about $60m (£40m), no small sum when two thirds of the city's population are reliant on welfare payments.

Like many of the casino resorts springing up across America, the Seneca Niagara makes use of federal laws that allow Native Americans to use casinos to help them become self-sufficient. The casino in Niagara is owned by the Seneca tribe, the largest of five groups that traditionally made up the Iroquois league, in what is now western New York state.

The tribe was once heavily reliant on agriculture, growing corn, squash and beans - which they referred to as "deohako" or "the life supporters". It is now hoping to lure tourists to the casino's blackjack tables and roulette wheels. So far the casino is attracting about 100,000 visitors a week.

Michael Brown, the casino's manager, told the newspaper USA Today: "I'm happy to have the falls - it's a true destination event. We complement it. It's another reason for coming here."

The city was once one of the most industrialised parts of north-eastern America. But when the electro-chemical industry shut down in the 1960s, there was no industry to replace the jobs. Many wish they had adopted the approach taken by officials on the Canadian side of the falls - where business is booming with double the number of tourists each year - and invested in the infrastructure.

And while the American side of the Niagara Falls draws 8 million visitors a year, most are there for just a few hours and very few stay overnight.

The plan to revitalise the American side of the falls was launched in 2001 by George Pataki, the Governor of New York state. He announced a plan similar to that which turned around the once down-at-heel 42nd Street area in Manhattan.

The development chamber in Niagara has the right to seize vacant or little-used buildings in the city centre. The agency is also supporting plans to convert an empty 20-storey office building into apartments, open a 3D cinema and develop a conference centre.

Officials say the area must make the most of its natural assets, admired by the French missionary Louis Hennepin in 1683. Hennepin, the first white man to see the falls, said: "One is seized with horror and the head turns round so that one cannot look long or steadfastly upon it."

But not everyone is convinced that the city should turn to gambling. Paul Lamont, a film maker, said: "[Do] we need a windowless void filled with slot machines to draw people to Niagara Falls?"