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Public Works: A Casino That Works?

How one of the world's most conservative cities learned to love its mega-casinos. The trick: put government in charge, not developers.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo by rosebennet from Flickr

Photo by rosebennet.

On May 21, city council will decide whether to move forward with the possible construction of a casino/resort/convention centre/shopping complex in Toronto. The meeting is the culmination of months of heated debate and Simpsons memes: on the one side, citizen’s groups, councillors, and most of the local media wringing their hands and thinking of the children; on the other, the Brothers Ford, would-be casino operators, and lobbyists pitching glitz and jobs with a whiff of monorail.

It’s widely expected that the vote will put a stake through the heart of the casino idea, even though no concrete plan has yet been proposed (the MGM back-of-a-cocktail-napkin concept notwithstanding). Questions about land use, traffic, crime, social issues, and general tackiness are understood to have swayed enough councillors to ensure the idea won’t be pursued any further.

On the small chance that council does decide to permit a casino, however, there’s a whole other conversation we must have about how it could, and should, actually operate. Allowing a casino in principle needn’t mean allowing any kind of casino operation in practice. At least one other major city, faced with concerns similar to Toronto’s, allowed casinos, but only subject to a range of measures that constrain their day-to-day management and ensure that they work the way the government wants.

Legalized gaming had been debated in Singapore for years, and rejected. Hence it was a surprise in 2005 when the famously straight-laced city-state announced that it would introduce casino gambling as part of a strategy to broaden an economy largely based on manufacturing and finance—and not just a puny three million square foot facility like the one spitballed by prospective developers for Casino Hogtown. After considering several proposals,the Singaporean government approved two “integrated resorts,” massive sin palaces occupying over five million square feet each and incorporating Vegas-style attractions such as a permanent Cirque du Soleil facility, a Universal Studios theme park, and a host of celebrity-branded restaurants (including an offering from Toronto’s Susur Lee).

By any financial yardstick, the Marina Bay Sands and Resort World Sentosa have been successful since opening in 2010.


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In the two resorts’ first year of operation (and while they were still under construction), the city saw an all-time record number of tourist arrivals and a 49 per cent increase in year over year tourist expenditures. By the beginning of 2012, it was estimated that the two sites had created more than 60,000 jobs (22,000 of them directly) and were contributing between 1.5 and 2 per cent to Singapore’s gross domestic product. Even as business slowed in 2012 thanks to a sputtering Chinese economy and the resorts’ waning novelty, the impact on the local economy has remained huge. The effect is particularly notable considering that Singapore has gone head-to-head with regional gambling hub Macau, which is well-established and a four hour flight closer to the lucrative Chinese market.

So how did Singapore, a country where you can be fined for not flushing a public toilet and where corporal punishment isn’t just the name of a Schwarzenegger comeback vehicle, come to embrace gaming on an industrial scale?

Well, money, of course. But we’re talking about a place where, writes one academic, the new resorts challenged “core beliefs that run deep within Singapore’s society…that gambling was inherently evil, potentially detrimental to society” [PDF]. In 2005, some 30,000 Singaporeans signed an online petition opposing the government on casino gambling, a bold move in a country where the same party has been in power for more than fifty years and where political dissent may be viewed as dangerously anti-social.

In response, policy makers reframed the question: instead of asking whether Singapore should have casinos, they looked at how integrated resorts could be introduced while minimizing the feared social problems. The outcome was an array of regulation intended to mitigate negative effects on the community while still yielding the financial benefits of Vegas-style gaming.

Among the new rules Singapore implemented:

  • Singapore citizens and permanent residents must pay a fee of of $80 (Canadian) for a single casino visit or $1,600 for a year of access (it’s thought that about a quarter of casino visitors are local). Fee revenues go to the Totalisator Board, also not a Schwarzenegger film but a government agency which funds social and charitable causes.
  • Marketing aimed at local residents is prohibited, including advertising, loyalty programs, and free shuttle buses.
  • People on social assistance or who have declared bankruptcy are not permitted in casinos. Individuals can self-request a ban, and families can also request that members be banned.
  • No ATMs are allowed on casino grounds.
  • The maximum floor space allowed for gambling is 15,000 square metres (161,000 square feet) per integrated resort (in each case about three per cent of the total, although gambling accounts for some 70 per cent of the revenue).
  • In an effort to avoid associations with criminal gangs found in other jurisdictions (notably Macau) the law forbids the ownership or management of a casino by anyone who the government believes “has any business association with any person, body or association who or which, in the opinion of the Authority, is not of good repute having regard to character, honesty and integrity or has undesirable or unsatisfactory financial resources.”
  • There are also significant restrictions on junket operators, who are paid commissions to bring in high rollers, and who drive much of the VIP traffic in other gambling hotspots.

The government continues to tweak the law. Rules were beefed up this year, raising the cap for fines on casino operators who allow entry to minors or “excluded persons” from $800,000 to a potential $160 million, and allowing the regulatory authority to specify the maximum number of visits that a deemed “problem gambler” can make to a casino each month.


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Have the regulation been effective?

If there has been any major negative fallout from the new resorts, it’s not yet apparent. The government claims that problem gambling rates haven’t increased following the casino openings. And it appears that rather than sucking dollars away from local business, the resorts have created a mini-boom for Singapore’s hospitality industry.

Singapore has some similarities with the GTA. Both are affluent, culturally diverse regional centres with populations of around five and a half million people, and both can access a large pool of potential customers a few hours away by air.

Singapore’s solutions won’t translate directly, however. Attempts to exclude classes of individuals from gaming could be met with legal challenges. Traffic issues would be considerable here, given that Singapore has a much more advanced public transit network and an automated system of road user charges to combat congestion. There are also some significant differences in the role gambling plays in Canadian culture.

Nevertheless, the broad approach—ensuring the development process is guided by government and not casino operators—makes sense. Singapore spelled out a set of conditions to be placed on any gambling facility before considering specific proposals, and made licensing contingent on operators accepting any future regulation they might choose to impose.

Toronto has already set out a list of 47 conditions that a potential casino would have to meet (although they’re far less draconian in addressing social issues than those imposed in Singapore). However, unlike the Singaporean government, which isn’t beholden to any higher authority, Toronto is subject to the whims of Queen’s Park. This is why many councillors feel forced into a binary choice: that their only real decision is the yes/no question of whether to open up this question. If they do allow the process to go forward, they fear, they won’t have the capacity to direct the development process thereafter. Though the province has said it will listen to the municipalities, subsequent negotiations will largely be left to their creature, the OLG (“creature” in this case being not only the technically accurate term but also one that serendipitously conveys just the right tone).

Also, even if the province and OLG were to agree to include Toronto’s conditions in any negotiation, many of those conditions are sufficiently vague (“the casino will have an urban form that is designed to fit within its local context”) that there’s plenty of weasel room, particularly when the cash-strapped government is under pressure from a developer dangling bags of Yankee greenbacks and resistant to anything that might hinder efforts to hoover loonies from the pockets of hopeful punters.

Singapore seems to have found a trade-off that works, largely through its willingness to take a strong stance on regulating the casinos it has allowed. It’s an example that suggests Toronto could introduce casino gambling in a way that could be an economic and—don’t laugh—a cultural asset. But to get there, the province would have to let the City drive, or itself take on the task of regulating the facilities very strongly, and the prospective operators would have to sit in the back seat.

It’s hard to like our chances.

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