Some politicians are suggesting, as they do every so often, that perhaps Toronto might benefit from a casino. Revenue enhancement or social ill—and if it's both, should we take the plunge?
In Torontoist vs. Torontoist, two contributors face off to debate an issue important to our city.
Last Friday, the Globe reported that the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation has undertaken a review of their business for the provincial government, which could lead to a recommendation for a casino here in Hogtown.
It’s an idea that gets raised every so often, with the Exhibition Grounds or Ontario Place often mentioned as possible locations. But will it do the city good, or do the harms outweigh potential benefits?
Of course Toronto should have a casino.
First of all, we’re not talking about whether gaming should be allowed in Ontario or in Toronto. That’s a done deal. From lotteries and off-track betting to slot machines and full-on casinos, governments of all political stripes have funded and been funded by gambling, cheered on by us, the voting monkeys who put them in office.
The only question is, do we want a casino here in Toronto?
The case in favour is easy, even for a non-gambler. A glitzy, fancy-ass gaming palace in Canada’s most populous city would add colour, draw tourists, and bring in a stream of cash to make these deficit-reducing times a little less austere. The city might even pick up enough cash to build a couple of klicks of tunnel to hide unsightly transit.
So let’s consider the arguments against.
Firstly, the oft-made claim that there is no net benefit—that dollars spent at a casino will be money that doesn’t go to a local restaurant, theatre, or Starbucks. Sounds plausible, but if that were true we’d never build anything, since the same logic would hold for a mall, stadium, megadisco or just about anywhere else people dispose of their income. But this ain’t some podunk where the first whiff of a Walmart shuts down every business in town. This is TO, Hogtown, the fourth largest urban agglomeration in the whole United States of Canada region. We can swallow a dozen damn casinos if we feel like it and still have room for a Dollywood theme park .
Some say that casinos pump up crime rates and attract undesirable elements; gangsters, thugs, pimps, hos, people who wear white after Labour Day. This idea has been perpetuated by NIMBYs worried about disappointed punters pissing failure and cheap margaritas all over bourgeois rose gardens at 3 a.m. However, while the subject of crime and casinos has been researched and discussed ad nauseum, there’s no firm evidence of a direct relationship.
Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak is less concerned about the moral aspects of a GTA casino than with the practical economics—would it draw business away from Ontario’s other gambling hotspots like Niagara Falls? Despite the best efforts of The Band From TV, the Fallsview and her sisters are hurting from a slow economy and cross-border competition, and Casino Rama is having a lousy year too.
So what happens if Torontonians start slotting down at home instead of grabbing their change purses and hopping buses to Barrie or the Falls? It’s possible—likely, even—there would be some cannibalization of other casino business in the province. But the point is to situate your gaming palaces where they’re most likely to be successful. If the cross-border gambling strategy that built temples to Fortuna in Niagara Falls and Windsor is failing, doesn’t it make sense for OLG to invest in a venue that can deliver streetcars full of statistics class dropouts—say, Canada’s largest city? And who knows, it might get the competition to pick up their game.
Casin-TO™ isn’t a panacea for the fiscal woes of the province or the City, but it would provide a few bucks and a little fun. Come on, Dalton; roll the dice.
Although the provincial government’s plan to redevelop Ontario Place was met with some criticism (mostly from those nostalgic for an era when watching a film about glacial erosion in a giant sphere was, you know, fun) most agreed the government-owned theme park had had its day—it was time to move on. And even though a final decision on the park’s future has yet to be reached, it’s safe to say that the City and the province are sitting on a waterfront jewel capable of injecting a much-needed jolt into a once-majestic area of Toronto.
However, the announcement that the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation is mulling the idea of building a casino on the property (or on the nearby Exhibition Grounds) really brings an end to any hope that the province is serious about revitalizing the area. A casino is, and always has been, a quick political fix. Faced with a deficit of more than $16 billion, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan will be hard-pressed to say no to OLG—a firm that lined the province’s pockets with $1.9 billion last year alone.
Many politicians may find it difficult to oppose the idea as long as it generates jobs, tourism, and cash for the city. Councillor Doug Ford (Ward 2, Etobicoke North), for example, is all for it, as long as the City’s cut can be funneled to brother mayor’s Sheppard subway extension.
On the surface, a casino seems like a moneymaking no-brainer, but in reality, it just doesn’t make economic sense for the province or the City. Building a casino in Toronto would spread the existing demand for gaming far too thin. As the Canadian dollar has strengthened, American gamblers have begun to stay away from the OLG-owned Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls, and it has had to rely increasingly upon visitors from the GTA. Last year, the Fallsview took in $599.8 million, down nearly $33 million from 2009. It also attracted one million fewer gamblers than in 2009. With a casino in Toronto, revenues in Niagara would drop sharply, putting at risk a community that is already struggling financially.
It doesn’t take a chief economist to see that the Toronto casino would not generate any new income for OLG. It would only shift the money over from one casino to the other, cannibalizing revenues.
As far as generating residual cash for other Toronto businesses, good luck. Money some residents and tourists may have spent on local food, music, or theatre would get funneled into the casino.
And what of the Ontario Place land? At its zenith of popularity in the 1970s and ’80s, the theme park there drew people to an area of town long-since forgotten about. The province now has an opportunity to achieve a similar feat—they could bring residents and tourists back to the waterfront. A casino would only marginalize the area. Frankly, it’s just not worth the gamble.