Liveblog: Torontonians at City Hall Share Their Views About a Casino
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Liveblog: Torontonians at City Hall Share Their Views About a Casino

Members of the public address city councillors, and share their opinions about expanding gambling in Toronto.

During executive committee’s lunch break, a rally in Nathan Phillips Square for Woodbine workers.

Today, after months of build-up, the formal debate about whether to permit a new casino in Toronto begins at City Hall. The debate will be in two parts: first, the executive committee (that’s the most powerful of all the various council committees, and the one stocked with most of Mayor Rob Ford’s closest allies) will consider the matter, and issue a recommendation on how to proceed—that’s the meeting happening today and tomorrow. Then, in a few weeks (the exact date hasn’t been set), there will be a meeting of full city council to discuss that recommendation. The final vote by full city council will constitute the municipal government’s official position on whether to allow a casino or not; Queen’s Park, which regulates all gaming in the province via the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG), has promised to respect whatever it is that city council decides.

Follow along—updates are in reverse chronological order, below…

8:35 PM: And, we’re done. The meeting will reconvene tomorrow for councillors to pose questions of staff, and debate the options. Have a great night, and we’ll be back in the morning.

8:33 PM: Running through the list very quickly now; not that many people have stayed until the end.

7:58 PM: “It is 7:58,” says Mayor Ford, sounding more energetic than he has in a couple of hours. “That’s it for deputations.” Then another councillor, Cesar Palacio, moves to extend the meeting by an hour so that some of the people who have been waiting all day can have a chance to speak. The motion carries.
7:37 PM: Annabelle Dawn moved to Toronto recently from Vancouver, which shut down a casino bid not too long ago. She recounts hearing one man describe a casino as steroids for a sick patient: it gives you an artificial jolt, but doesn’t remedy underlying problems. Also, she adds, Toronto is not a sick city.

7:29 PM: New tally! We are now at the deputant registered at number 149 (of 207). Due to some absences, a total of 84 people have actually spoken. Of those: 42 are opposed to casino expansion; nine are in favour of expansion at Woodbine only; one is in favour of a casino at the Port Lands only; two are in favour of one at the convention centre only; eight are in favour of expansion if there are strict labour conditions attached to ensure workers are unionized; and three are neutral or undecided.

For more background:


6:58 PM: Sorry for the radio silence! We’ve got some technical trouble (you may also be having difficulties loading the site right now). Will update as best we can while our developers work on it.

5:45 PM: Mayor Ford pauses proceedings for a few minutes to address the explosions that went off during the Boston marathon this afternoon. “I’d like to convey our deepest sympathies to the victims of this afternoon’s explosions in Boston… There is no immediate threat to the city [of Toronto], but we are going to continue monitoring the situation… The City Manager will be working with all department heads to ensure that any upcoming events are as secure as possible… Our thoughts are prayers with the people of Boston.”

5:35 PM: “A yes vote is, ironically, a huge gamble” says deputant 91, Kristy Davidson—worried, like many others, that any municipal conditions attached to a casino could be overridden.

5:25 PM: We stepped out of the meeting for the first time today to speak a bit more with Dennis Hassell. He is, as turns out, the same man who showed up at the Etobicoke community consultation back in January as Darth Vader. It all started, he tells us, when he came to an earlier consultation at City Hall—one where he and his wife, he says, “felt very managed” by the way the meeting was set up, as though they were being told a casino was already decided upon, and they could only weigh in on the details. His father was a publicist, he goes on, and he learned from him the value that a photo and a metaphor could hold in public discourse. Thus Darth Vader before, and the Godfather today.

casino executive committee godfather dennis hassell

5:11 PM: By coincidence, Tuxedo Man is next. His actual name is Dennis Hassell (of Dennis Hassell Productions), and he is a faith-based performer. He is conducting a conversation between…well, it’s not entirely clear who, but he is playing at least two roles at once, and possibly more. Sample dialogue: “As Paul Godfather Godfrey would say, [a casino] is an offer you can’t refuse.'” He is opposed, concerned about the toll gambling will take on his neighbours. And he tosses to Rob Ford, as he finishes, a “political football” as a souvenir. “That’s the first thing you’ve handled well all day!” cracks Adam Vaughan as Ford catches it on the second throw.

5:06 PM: Just noticed in the audience: a man in a tuxedo, with a very shiny white scarf. Nobody knows why.

4:52 PM: Mark McEwan, one of Toronto’s best-known chefs and restaurant owners, tells the committee that he was “very excited” about the potential a new major resort complex represented when he heard one was being considered. “I don’t think this building will go on for ever… this would be a nice keepsake for the city of Toronto.” He adds that Las Vegas has been somewhat mischaracterized, and that in his experience people do move from place to place and building to building. “I’m not afraid of this coming to the city,” he goes on, and says it would energize the hotel, limouisine, and other high-end service industries.

4:24 PM: Lis Pimentel is the head of Unite Here Local 75 (their Toronto chapter) has been the public face of the organized labour workers who back a casino. She tells the committee that the members she represents want to see a casino if the agreement with the developer and operator includes a “labour peace agreement” to ensure the work is unionized. Councillor Gord Perks maintains this would preclude workers from striking, but the bigger concern some have is that the municipal government doesn’t have the legal authority to firmly attach any conditions at all, since (as far as we know) and deal would be subject to appeal to the OMB.

4:01 PM: CEO of the Canadian Gaming Association, Bill Rutsey, urges the committee to vote yes on a casino, maintaining that they will be able to attach conditions to cover particular issues. He likens this debate to other “Toronto the Good debates” such as ones about whether to allow streetcars to run on Sunday, or to permit Sunday shopping—something quaint and outmoded that we will come to realize in retrospect posed no threat at all.

3:48 PM: Adam Vaughan, questioning DeMonte and Elenis, says that the entire convention centre would need to be closed for somewhere between two and five years in order to accommodate a major redevelopment, though it’s unclear what his source is on that.

3:41 PM: Tony Elenis and Debra DeMonte, both from the Ontario Restaurant Hotel Motel Association, are here to advocate specifically for a major complex at the convention centre—which they say is distinguished by its ability to provide economic uplift to surrounding businesses, since it’s right in the middle of downtown. Elenis and DeMonte do not mention Exhibition Place by name, but they say they are opposed to more isolated, “closed off” locations, which would have no such spillover effect and keep casino patrons within the facility itself.

3:32 PM: Gayle Hurmuses raises a concern about prostitution, and describes her experience traveling to Las Vegas and how often she was approached there when compared to when she walks around Toronto. “Women are going to be prostitutes that are not now prostitutes” she warns, in the wake of their gambling debts.

3:11 PM: The president of Tourism Toronto, David Whitaker, is heartily encouraging about the prospect both of a casino and the process of public debate thus far. He is excited to see specific proposals, and strongly encourages both an expansion at Woodbine and a convention complex downtown. “I’m in the growth business,” he says, and the potential here is great.

3:01 PM: We are on deputant number 49 of the 207 registered members of the public who want to speak; 37 people have actually spoken. With 4.5 hours of total speaking time, at this rate another 40 or so people will be able to speak—less than half than the total number who registered.

2:50 PM: We are still on questions from councillors, who are asking for more details about the Exhibition Place proposal. Mike Layton walks by the media desk with a print out from the U.S. Department of Labour, showing that the average salary for a casino worker there is roughly $29,000. Adam Vaughan comes over to show us a sketch with kids riding in cranes at the construction site, since the Ex’s traditional rides will no longer be available.

2:34 PM: MGM/Cadillac emphasize that they are interested in attracting wealthy tourists; their target isn’t lower-income Torontonians who can ill-afford to take on gambling debt.

“According to your filing last year you lost $1.8 billion?” says Adam Vaughan out of the gate with his questions to MGM. MGM responds that if he is worried about the viability of their business Cadillac Fairview is one of the most well-capitalized corporations around.

2:25 PM: The MGM and Cadillac Fairview representatives are speaking as a group—three of them, which means they get nine minutes total. Their hope is to build an “integrated resort,” including a casino, at Exhibition Place. That facility would create 10,000 permanent jobs with an average salary of $60,000/year, they say, in addition to the hosting fee Toronto would get. They describe themselves as city-builders, and emphasize the multipurpose nature of the site they want to develop. “Now is not the time to be timid.”

2:10 PM: Michael Kitt is here representing Oxford Properties. “We are not here to lobby for a casino,” he says, “Toronto does not need a casino in order to survive. The question is whether Toronto is strong enough to absorb a casino.” Oxford wants to redevelop the convention centre downtown; as part of that vision it has said it could include a casino. Previously Oxford seemed much more strongly pro-casino; now they are tempering their language, arguing that the convention centre can grow and flourish either way. “If you chose to proceed we would box and control the casino,” Kitt says, as any other tenant would be managed.

1:57 PM: New tally! 37 deputants called; 29 deputants present to speak; 17 opposed to any casino expansion; 7 in favour of a Woodbine expansion (all representing Woodbine Entertainment Group or other industry groups); 3 in favour of all casino expansion (one from the hotel association, one from Caesars, one private resident); 1 (private resident) in favour of a Port Lands casino; 1 (private resident) undecided.

1:52 PM: Charles Finlay from Social Planning Toronto is here to warn councillors about the social costs of a casino, which will disproportionately affect lower-income Torontonians, he says. Also: “A casino in Toronto will materially and negatively affect the local economy and business close to the casino site.” He goes on to cite cities like Baltimore and Cleveland, which he says have seen damage the local fabrics of their cities due to their casinos.

1:42 PM: Our first deputant after lunch is Joy Taylor. “I’m 90 years old and I’m here to tell you that a casino is a lousy way to raise money to help pay our debts… Please heed this old lady and just vote no.” Much (kind) laughter. And then “I don’t want to threaten but I’ve been known to haunt!”

1:35 PM: Welcome back! Two incidents that people are talking about from lunch, one trivial and one more important. The more important one: about 150 Woodbine race track workers rallied in Nathan Phillips Square, chanting “save our jobs!” and urging councillors to protect the existing facility there.
The trivial one: on his way out of the meeting as lunch began Rob Ford walked into a broadcaster’s camera, or the camera guy backed into him—accounts vary. He swore and then left, instead of staying to answer a few questions from reporters.

12:30 PM: Lunch break! The meeting—and this liveblog—will resume at 1:30 p.m.

12:20 PM: Alexander Greer is registered as deputant number 29 (though we took a few people out of order). He is a former law professor, albeit from an American institution, and he came to City Hall to tell councillors that in his opinion any conditions that council might want to attach to a casino—about where it could be located, or how many hours it could operate, or really anything else—would not be legally enforceable. He grew up in Atlantic City, and thinks the casinos there ruined his hometown. He says when he was a kid there were four grocery stores and now there are none, and that the city is effectively run by corporate interests rather than citizens. “The province is a superior body to the City of Toronto” he explains when asked by councillor Mike Layton, when asked about his legal concerns. Any particular development deal that the municipal government consented to could be overridden by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, he maintains.

12:01 PM: It is time for Mary Hynes—who some of you may recall from the budget debate as Yelly Granny. “Many of us are lonely and on a very limited income,” she says, “so build a mega-casino; seniors will be there in droves… We will spend our pensions!” Her tongue-in-cheek deputations have become a bit of a legend at City Hall. “Thank you for building a casino so we can spend our time indoors staring at a screen instead of outside building our community,” she goes on. Applause and laughter as she finishes. Rob Ford seems relieved there are no questions for her.

11:52 AM: From MGM and Cadillac Fairview this morning, a new video meant to sell you on the prospect of a shiny new casino at Exhibition Place—

You can read more about their proposal here.

11:35 AM: And now Jan Jones, executive vice-president of government relations for Caesars Entertainment, which (obviously) very very much wants council to support a casino. She was also mayor of Las Vegas for much of the ’90s (thanks to National Post reporter Natalie Alcoba, who is sitting next to us, for that tip). She is full of optimism and hope.

11:16 AM: Dori Seagal is the president of First Capital Realty, which has two billion dollars’ worth of development in Toronto. “OLG is not a city-builder, nor concerned with the quality of life in our neighbourhoods,” he says. “As a businessman I believe the OLG fantasy is voodoo economics for our city.” Among those developments are hundreds of thousands of square feet in Liberty Village, which is why Seagal specifically mentions the damage he thinks an Exhibition Place casino would cause, creating “a dead zone” around the gaming facility that would substantially undermine the businesses and residences nearby.

11:12 AM: Our first deputant speaking as a private resident (not representing an organization) that’s in favour of a downtown casino. His name is Al Carbone, and he owns a restaurant. He thinks that we need the hosting fee a casino would bring to Toronto in order to pay for services and infrastructure, like repairing the crumbling Gardiner Expressway. He also thinks we have a shortage of parking spots downtown and thinks the casino lot might help with that.

10:58 AM: Now up: Terry Mundell, president of the Greater Toronto Hotel Association. His organization is strongly supportive of the idea that Toronto would benefit from a massively upgraded and expanded convention centre; something that could, in theory, be part of a casino complex. That would allow Toronto to bid on 400 new conventions that it currently cannot, he says, because our convention centre doesn’t have sufficient contiguous floor space. Though his remarks are primarily focused on the convention business, the hotel association also backs the suggestion that we should allow a casino—or more precisely, that we should say yes right now to allowing the process to move forward. If we at least agreed to consider one, he says, we could then make a final decision after bids had been submitted, with more concrete proposals to consider.

10:53 AM: Julie Beddoes, who is one of the residents who was most active in opposing Doug Ford’s Ferris wheel fantasies for the Port Lands, is here representing the West Don Lands Committee, a community based resident and business coalition dedicated to the development of that waterfront neighbourhood. She says that “casinos are not an appropriate or reliable way to finance City services” and is skeptical about the claim that a new downtown casino would create 10,000 new jobs. She suggests that until someone can produce a detailed breakdown of what those jobs would be, and how many would be part- vs full-time, nobody has any reason to put stock in that figure.

10:49 AM: Giorgio Mammoliti is in the house—just back from brain surgery. “I can only stay for about five minutes, but you know why I’m here. I’m hoping a casino will do great things for the city.” He thanks everyone for their good wishes and support, and says he will be back up to full strength in a couple of weeks.

10:41 AM: First mention of Jane Jacobs. Elizabeth Block, who is opposed to a casino, says it would be a “monstrous hybrid” of the profit-driven goals of a private developer “combined with the coercive power of government.” She is skeptical about the purported city-enlivening benefits of a casino, saying that if they were cities like Windsor would have more robust and diverse economies than they actually do.

10:35 AM: On the fourth of four straight Woodbine representatives. New tally! Total deputants called: 17. Present to speak: 11. Pro Woodbine expansion: 4. Pro downtown casino: 0. Opposed: 6. Undecided: 1.

10:28 AM: Michael Thompson, the councillor who chairs the economic development committee at City Hall and is an important swing vote on this issues, asks about “moral decay” and the effects of gambling addiction. Bannon says “you play with your spare money here” about the players he’s seen at Woodbine.

10:24 AM: “What’s at stake…is the sustainability of Woodbine,” says another of their representatives, James Bannon.

10:20 AM: “Most of the people who will speak here today will refer to studies they’ve never read…using questionable empirical methodology.” That’s councillor Norm Kelly, ladies and gentlemen, commenting on the fine residents of Toronto who’ve come down to City Hall to share their views on this subject.

10:11 AM: Our first pro-expansion deputant is a Nick Eaves, CEO of the Woodbine Entertainment Group. He urges councillors to green light a full casino resort at Woodbine, which would both create new jobs and protect workers already employed by the horse-racing industry there, he says. There are currently 3,000 slot machines at Woodbine, and the City gets about $15 million in hosting fees for that facility, Eaves estimates. Adam Vaughan asks him whether the estimates that Toronto would be able to get more than $100 million for hosting a new facility make sense to him; he declines to comment.

10:09 AM: Stats so far! Number of deputants called: 10. Number who were present and spoke: 7. Number in favour of a casino: 0. Opposed: 6. Undecided: 1.

10:02 AM: “Casinos are predators for a city’s infrastructure…enclosed fortresses,” says Braz Menezes, representing the York Quay Neighbourhood Association. “Are we prepared to see major arteries like King Street lose their vitality?”

10:01 AM: Ford is taking this time limit very seriously—to the point that he will cut things off between when a councillor asks a question and a deputant has a chance to even begin his or her answer.

9:57 AM: Ford ally Norm Kelly asks the group how they are funding their campaign. Lynett says they have raised between $40,000-$50,000 in private donations from individuals only (no corporations) in amounts ranging from $5 to $500, collected via PayPal fundraising online.

9:55 AM: As the public face of the opposition, the No Casino Toronto representatives are getting lots of questions from councillors. When asked whether their opposition extends to gambling at Woodbine, they say that they don’t want to make life more difficult for people who are already employed in the industry; it’s the expansion and the building of new facilities that is their primary worry. Mayor Ford interrupts them in a middle of another answer, sticking very firmly to his one-minute rule.

9:50 AM: Deputants five and six are two of the founders of No Casino Toronto, the major activist group that formed to oppose a casino. “The lobbyists are effective at painting a rosy picture of jobs and free money,” Lynett says, but she urges council to “listen to the people.” She says that there are now half a million who are against the idea. “Governments should not be conducted as corporations,” Calvert continues.

9:48 AM: Total number of registered deputants: 207.

9:46 AM: We are moving quickly. The first person on the list is the CEO of the Wellesley Institute, a social policy think tank. He doesn’t materialize when his name is called so we move to deputant 2, Henry Lotin. He is opposed to a casino on the grounds that it will cannibalize revenue from existing facilities, and also because he is gravely concerned about money laundering.

9:39 AM: Rob Ford opens the meeting briskly, and announces that motion to curtail public speaking time “not to be rude, but just to make sure everyone is heard.” It will limit each member of the public to three minutes (down from five), the time each councillor has to question a deputant (one minute), and cut off public deputations at 8 p.m. (at which point registered speakers who may not have had a chance to address the committee can submit their comments in writing). Deputants with disabilities or small children will get bumped to the front of the line to speak. It passes with one dissenting vote (Paul Ainslie).

Mayor Rob Ford at a press conference before the executive committee meeting begins. Behind him are members of Unite Here, a pro-casino union.

9:12 AM: We kick off with a rare site: Mayor Rob Ford standing in front of whooping union workers. They are members of Unite Here, and they are actively backing a casino in Toronto because of the jobs they believe a new facility would create. They’ll be asking the executive committee to include a labour clause if they recommend a casino, which would make it a requirement that any casino developer build and staff the casino primarily with unionized workers. “And if it’s a no,” said Rob Ford this morning, “then I guess it becomes an election issue.”

9:05 AM: Right before deputants begin to speak, the committee will address procedural issues. The mayor has already announced that he will move a motion seeking to limit the length of time each member of the public can address the committee—down to three minutes from the usual five—and the length of time each councillor has to ask those deputants any questions. He will also ask to cut public speaking off at the end of today; anyone registered to speak who might not have yet had the chance to do so would be able to submit their comments in written form.

9:00 AM: Good morning! The executive committee meeting will begin at 9:30 a.m., and is scheduled to run for two days. Nearly 200 members of the public are registered to speak before the committee; that will be the first order of business. Once that is done then councillors will ask City staff any questions they might have: the subjects could range from the estimated revenue a casino will bring in to the health impacts to changes in traffic patterns. And after those questions are complete, then councillors will be able to move motions and debate how they want to proceed.

For more background: