Plenty of Optimism For Casinos at Etobicoke Consultation
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Plenty of Optimism For Casinos at Etobicoke Consultation

At a public consultation on the possibility of building a casino in Toronto, opinions were mixed.

Mayor Rob Ford and his advisors attend the casino consultation at Etobicoke Olympium Gymnasium.

Local union representatives, real estate agents, and management from Woodbine racetrack were singing the praises of casinos during a public consultation meeting last night at the Etobicoke Olympium Gymnasium. The goal of the City-hosted event was to gauge the public’s appetite for a new, Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation–approved gambling palace somewhere in Toronto.

The majority of attendees at the meeting were especially enthusiastic about the prospect of a casino development adjacent to Woodbine’s existing racetrack site in Rexdale, whose future is less than certain thanks to a stalled expansion plan and a recent decision by the province to slash funding to the horse racing industry.

About 200 people engaged in roundtable discussions with City staff and toured the spacious gymnasium to view a host of detailed graphs and facts about casinos that had been mounted on poster boards. Staff also allotted time for attendees to address the gathering over a microphone. (This may well have been in response to complaints at the first consultation meeting.) Councillor Sarah Doucette (Ward 13, Parkdale-High Park) underscored the gathering’s optimistic tone. “We’re in Etobicoke,” she said. “Everyone’s only been hearing about the downtown locations. If [Toronto residents] don’t get something, and it goes to Vaughan or Markham, you’re going to be losing jobs at Woodbine because business will go elsewhere. That concerns me.”

Most people we spoke with were interested in the potential economic benefits of a casino. High Park resident Melita Varga described the Woodbine site and surrounding area as “underdeveloped” and “a goldmine that’s sitting up in North Etobicoke by Pearson International Airport, where there’s 10,000 people going through every day.” Varga didn’t mention that she works for Cordish Company, a Baltimore, Maryland–based developer that is Woodbine’s partner on the long-delayed Woodbine Live expansion. Her comments weren’t unusual. There were plenty of other people in the room acting as representatives for organized, knowledgeable lobby groups with varying degrees of enthusiasm for casino development.

Ola Kopczynska, a union steward with Unite Here Local 75, a hotel workers’ union, told us she hoped a casino and accompanying commercial developments would create stable employment for her two sons. “I’m looking for good jobs with good pay and good benefits,” said Kopczynska, whose husband commutes to Oshawa to work for General Motors. Union organizer Amarjeet Chhabra added that Unite Here’s parent body has built strong partnerships with Las Vegas casino operators. “It’s not just a yes or no discussion—we want to create something sustainable for the city,” Chhabra said.

Cliff Donegal, of the Carpernters’ Union local 27, said a casino and accompanying amenities like hotels and retail development would provide work for his fellow union members.

Even Mayor Rob Ford, who has moved to contract out unionized City labour in the name of cost savings, expressed his enthusiasm last night for creating unionized work. “What I’m hearing is that people want good-paying jobs,” Ford told us. “From what I hear, this is going to create over 10,000 full-time good-paying union jobs. It’s going to bring in approximately 200 million in revenue if we get both [sites downtown and in North Etobicoke]—that’s gold.” While Ford described the potential for job creation as a “no brainer” in terms of its benefit to the city, he added that he and council need more information to ensure the deal makes sense for the city. “Let’s get it through council, let’s see the proposal, then we can deal with that,” he said.

Not everyone in attendance was willing to entertain a proposed casino, and those in opposition made sure to have their turn at the microphone once it was opened up to speakers. Theo Lagakos, an Etobicoke resident who works at Woodbine, warned that predictions about lucrative city hosting fees and good employment were overblown. “The jobs where I work are 60 per cent part time,” Lagakos told the room.

Peggy Calvert of No Casino Toronto dismissed expectations of casino revenue and community benefit as “pie in the sky.” The Etobicoke resident says she joined the group after learning about disappointing casino expansion attempts in other cities. “You look at St. Louis, Detroit, Windsor, Atlantic City…how many cautionary tales do you need?” Calvert wondered. She called Toronto “fresh meat” for developers. “They’re proposing 27 sites around the province,” Calvert said of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation. “Every city you look at that has accepted that Hail Mary pass mentality has regretted it.”

It's Darth Vader! Or maybe just local playwright Dennis Hassell.

Local playwright Dennis Hassell expressed his reservations about a casino development a little more creatively: just after the consultation had begun, he entered the gymnasium wearing a Darth Vader costume and holding a sign that said: “I support the mega casino and other death stars.” He was promptly escorted out by City staff, but not before whispering: “Tell Paul Godfrey of the OLG that I am his father.” Hassell told reporters in the hallway that, like the mythical Star Wars space station, a casino can create jobs and opportunity for Toronto, “but at what cost?”

Photos by Desmond Cole/Torontoist.

CORRECTION: January 16, 2013, 4:15 PM This post originally said that Unite Here Local 75’s parent body is the Service Employees International Union. In fact, Local 75’s parent is, simply, Unite Here. We regret the error.