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Meeting Reveals Toronto’s Casino Angst

At a committee meeting Wednesday night, politicians, lobbyists, and residents squared off over the idea of a downtown casino.

Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/phil_marion/2842251766/"}Phil Marion{/a}, from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/pool/"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

An evening meeting of the Toronto and East York Community Council saw dozens of gaming industry representatives, community activists, union spokespeople, and plain old unaffiliated citizens come to a packed City Hall committee room to voice their opinions on the idea of a casino being built in downtown Toronto, most likely on the Exhibition Place grounds or as part of the Port Lands redevelopment plan. With a few notable exceptions, deputants were united against the idea.

The word “cannibalize” came up with alarming frequency. Maureen Lynett and Peggy Calvert, from community group No Casino Toronto, said that a casino would “cannibalize,” not complement, local business. They referenced the boarded-up shops of Atlantic City as proof. That opinion was seconded by Toronto-Danforth MPP Peter Tabuns, who pointed out that “there are not an infinite number of dollars for bars, restaurants, and entertainment,” and that money that would be spent at a casino wouldn’t be spent at local businesses. Theo Lagakos, who works in the gaming industry as an employee at Woodbine Racetrack, also spoke out against a casino, saying that a Toronto-based resort casino would cannibalize the province’s existing gambling establishments. He also questioned the number of new jobs a casino would bring to Toronto. Wooodbine, he said, is in the middle of laying people off.

“About half the employees at Woodbine are part-time,” he added. “Are these the sort of jobs they’re talking about adding?”

Bill Rutsey, of the Canadian Gaming Association, a gambling industry lobby group, countered that a casino would bring thousands of full-time jobs to the city.

“What’s really under consideration now is whether to work together with the OLG and the Ontario government to realize a once-in-a-lifetime, game-changing, iconic entertainment development that will create 6,000 construction jobs and support up to 12,000 good-paying, permanent jobs, and attract tourists from around the globe,” he said.

Former casino employee Jason Applebaum, who admitted to being a recovering gambling addict, said that Rutsey’s claims of a jobs bonanza aren’t true. He said full-time positions at other Ontario casinos are scarce, and he wondered why a casino in Toronto would be any different.

“I got a full-time position at Fallsview in 2004 in the table games department, and there has not been full-time employment since,” he said. “Some of my best friends have been part-time dealers for 10 years.”

Rutsey was the one of the few pro-casino voices at the hearing. He encouraged citizens and councillors to “get the facts” before deciding whether or not to support a downtown casino. He would quickly come to regret his choice of words. Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park) spent several minutes pointing out that Rutsey was unable to back up his job creation and economic impact numbers.

“In terms of the jobs estimate, that’s something you’ve heard, not something you’ve read?” he asked Rutsey.

“No, I’ve met with and discussed that [number] with the OLG, but I have not seen the detailed report,” said Rutsey.

“So, when you’re encouraging us to ‘get the facts,’ you wouldn’t be encouraging us to use that number, would you?” said Perks. “That would be encouraging us to get an opinion.”

The other pro-casino voices at the deputation came from local unions. Representatives of the Carpenters’ Union, UNITE HERE, and the SEIU came down to lend a sort of conditional support to the project, provided any potential casino meet a long list of criteria. Lis Pimentel, president of UNITE HERE Local 75, which represents over 6,000 hospitality workers in southern Ontario, said that the casino could be a blessing for Toronto, under the right circumstances. It has to create “thousands of good union jobs,” she said, and provide the City with money for local infrastructure.

While many people wanted to debate the economic impact of a casino, others were more concerned with a casino’s social impact. Most vocal among them was deputant Margaret van Dijk.

“Casinos are considered cash cows…and are also considered to bring jobs,” she said. “Have any of you considered that the jobs they’re most likely to bring are organized crime, loan sharking, fraud, drug pushing, and pimps and prostitutes? I don’t want that in my neighbourhood.”

Moral and economic concerns aside, many of the councillors said that they’re concerned about the planning and zoning issues that would come with a casino. The building would require a massive, single-use footprint, which would be counter to the City’s push toward mixed-use development. It would also be a traffic nightmare and require a ton of parking. According to one formula used by the City’s planning department (one-and-a-half parking spots for every slot machine), the casino would need 7,500 parking spaces.

“That’s as many as Yorkdale Mall,” said Councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina).

Comments

  • Kevin Ellis

    I think a solid first step would be to facilitate a structured discussion where by the community and the proponents of the project establish a common set of requirements and matching benefits that can be delivered by such a project. These meeting are too much of a clash of agendas to ever form the basis of anything that can actually benefit the community long term.

    • Anonymous

      How does a “no gambling ” requirement fit?

    • Anonymous

      I don’t agree with building a casino but I think this type of discourse between all involved parties is valuable. Unfortunately, Ford or one of his cronies will inevitably cut speaking time down to 30 seconds after blaring their message in the media for a couple of months before any deliberations

    • OgtheDim

      Structured discussions are in theory what deputations to city councillors mean. The fact that many of them discount these discussions is there issue.

      Ultimately, we elect and pay them to listen and then lead.

  • Anonymous

    Other than the gaming association shill, Rutsey, I wonder how Ford’s gang feels about the pro-casino deputants mostly representing unionized trades he hates so much? A bit of irony, I’d say.

  • Anonymous

    ‘“What’s really under consideration now is whether to work together with the OLG and the Ontario government to realize a once-in-a-lifetime, game-changing, iconic entertainment development that will create 6,000 construction jobs and support up to 12,000 good-paying, permanent jobs, and attract tourists from around the globe,” [Bill Rutsey] said.’

    What makes a casino “once-in-a-lifetime”? “Iconic entertainment development” is meaningless PR fluff. “Game-changing”… well, that’s the issue isn’t it? A casino would disrupt a major part of the city, but the “gaming” people seem unable to name a single benefit other than (qustionable) job creation. “6,000 construction jobs” would be temporary, but how many of them would be new jobs rather than work going to existing construction sector workers? “Permanent jobs” aren’t full-time jobs, and many of those “12,000″ would be at the expense of existing hospitality/entertainment jobs at businesses such a development would shut down.

    • http://twitter.com/maharper82 Matthew Harper

      On the construction jobs front, I wonder if the pool of construction jobs in the city isn’t already stretched too thin, and road work closures durations might be reducible if there was a bit more concentration of effort.

      • Anonymous

        I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of Toronto construction jobs were being filled by people who came from outside Ontario just for the work, oil rig style.

  • Anonymous

    If Toronto wants an iconic attraction, in the form of a casino resort, then look to Singapore, where 2 gaming companies invested and estimated $10 billion US dollars for projects that are much more than casino/hotels. The City State offered a very attractive win tax rate, varying between 5% and 15%, and limited the licenses to two; one for Sentosa Island, for an all inclusive facility, including a Universal Park; and another in the Marina District, with superior convention facilities and a large retail center. These major projects have increased Singapore’s foreign tourism by over 20%. Ontario already has casino gaming, but just adding table games to racetracks, will not attract visitors to Toronto, only provide a more inclusive form on gaming for the metropolitan population.

    • Anonymous

      “2 gaming companies invested and estimated $10 billion US dollars for projects that are much more than casino/hotels.”

      OMG that is so generous! I wonder what they expect to get out of it? Or is it a charity…