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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).

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