Recommendations go beyond staff advice, add Ontario Place and the Port Lands as potential casino locations.
City council’s executive committee, composed of many of Rob Ford’s closest allies, has endorsed a strong pro-casino stance at the end of a two-day special meeting dedicated specifically to that topic. Though there were some dissenting votes, as a whole the committee voted to go further than City staff recommended in terms of potential casino locations, and are sending a clear message to the province that they are eager to open the door to expanding gambling in Toronto. So great is their enthusiasm for a casino that they didn’t even consider the one stipulation most observers expected them to pass: including a minimum hosting fee as a condition of allowing a casino to be built.
Those recommendations will need to be supported by full city council if they are to carry any weight, however, and based on reaction to today’s decision, the casino proposal is very likely to be killed when it comes to council for that final vote.
Here’s a breakdown of today’s executive committee recommendations…
The executive committee is recommending that city council:
Support a casino downtown or at Exhibition Place. This is the one everyone expected, based on the mayor’s strong support for a casino.
Support the expansion of the current gambling facility at Woodbine. Also expected, this is much less controversial than a downtown casino—in part because a gaming facility is already there, and in part because the surrounding area isn’t as densely built up. Moreover, many recognize that casino expansion in the Greater Toronto Area, combined with changes to the horse-racing industry, endanger the viability of Woodbine and risk major job losses; allowing expansion is a way of trying to protect the existing site.
Allow Ontario Place to be included as part of a casino development. Moved by the mayor, this motion was unexpected. It goes beyond the locations that we have been discussing thus far, expanding the scope of a potential Exhibition Place casino to also include development at Ontario Place.
Discuss the possibility of “consolidating the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and the Direct Energy Centre into a single, world-class exhibit and convention facility.” Nobody, frankly, knows what this means. It’s another motion moved by Rob Ford, and it appears to be in response to City staff’s finding that the biggest limit on the convention business in Toronto is that our existing facilities aren’t large enough to accommodate the biggest conventions. That’s why many people have suggested that a casino complex include a massive new convention facility, or that existing facilities be expanded. Ford’s motion, however, tries to join up the MTCC, which is located just south of Front Street by the CN Tower, and the Direct Energy Centre, which is at Exhibition Place. Given how far apart those two facilities are, it’s not at all clear what Ford had in mind when he suggested they be consolidated.
Include the Port Lands among the list of potential casino locations. Another surprise, this one goes directly against City staff advice. From their final report on a potential casino: “The vision for the Port Lands is for a live-work community developed with a compact urban form serviced by a network of fine-grained public streets, and parks and open spaces. A large, integrated resort complex would be inconsistent with the emerging vision for the Port Lands.” The executive committee considered, and rejected, a motion that would exclude the Port Lands from any future casino development.
Make any casino developer also build a major convention centre. This one was expected: in their report City staff recommended that a casino be paired with a major convention site, and found that a major new convention complex might be an even better driver of economic development than any casino itself.
Make any casino operator sign a labour peace agreement. This would mean that casino operators invite workers to be unionized from the outset (rather than a union coming in from the outside to organize the workers); in exchange, the union would offer favourable terms to the casino, like promising not to strike.
Make any casino operator commit to a “residents-first local hiring policy,” incorporate gender and diversity equity in their hiring, and also have a policy that includes “rehabilitated gamblers.” This was moved by Cesar Palacio, and while the first two clauses are perfectly sensible and standard, the rationale for making a point of hiring recovering gambling addicts to work at a new gaming site is…perplexing. (The language of the motion notes that those workers wouldn’t be specifically in “the casino portion” of a new complex, though it’s still unclear why targeting recovering gamblers is a good thing for a casino complex to do.)
Give Toronto the final right to choose which location to build at, and give Toronto at least two proposals each for developments at Exhibition Place and the downtown core.
Conspicuous by its absence: a hosting fee stipulation. Every city that allows a casino gets a certain percentage of that casino’s revenues from the province in exchange. Called a hosting fee, this amount has been the subject of much dispute for months. When Rob Ford first tried to convince us that a casino would be a huge prize for Toronto, it was largely on the strength of the money it would put into the municipal government; at various points in time the mayor floated several numbers between $100 and $200 million a year. Those numbers would be a major aberration though: the province usually gives only a fraction as much to municipal governments, and new premier Kathleen Wynne has been very clear that there will be no special deals for Toronto. We’re still waiting for a final number—today the OLG’s Rod Phillips told reporters the finance minister would have it at the end of this month—and so many expected that councillors would attach a specific minimum hosting fee as another condition for a casino.
As is the case with all of the conditions the executive committee wants to attach to a casino, it’s unclear whether the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (the provincial agency that manages gambling) would be legally obligated to adhere to those stipulations in any negotiations. Immediately after the vote OLG president Rod Phillips held a press conference in which he said that the agency was not interested in building a casino against a community’s wishes. He was adamant that if they couldn’t find a developer to build a casino that met the City’s specifications, a casino wouldn’t be built at all.
The executive committee’s recommendations will be debated at a full meeting of city council, expected to be scheduled shortly.