Rob Ford Proclaims Toronto Casino "Dead"
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Rob Ford Proclaims Toronto Casino “Dead”

Mayor cancels special meeting on a potential casino, saying the province is "wasting our time."

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Breaking with just about every precedent of his mayoralty thus far, Rob Ford has decided to call it quits on an issue he’s championed rather than fight it out (and lose) on the floor of the council chamber: today he proclaimed proposals to build a casino in downtown Toronto “dead” and cancelled the special meeting of city council that had been scheduled for Tuesday, May 21 to debate the issue.

Seeking to overturn his cancellation, just minutes later several councillors said they were going to try and hold the meeting anyway. Those councillors, all opposed to a casino, aren’t satisfied with a cancelled meeting: they want to make sure the matter is well and thoroughly settled, and decidedly vote against the proposal. Officially, it won’t be dead until and unless they do.

Speaking at greater length than he usually does, the mayor convened a press conference this afternoon to say that he remains committed to the idea that a major “entertainment complex” including a casino is a good choice for Toronto if it meets certain conditions, and in particular if the province guarantees to give the municipal government a “fair share” of the revenue it generates—at least $100 million a year. The province has been dragging its feet on confirming how much revenue Toronto would receive, however, and in the wake of today’s announcement by Finance Minister Charles Sousa that the province might not be able to commit to a hosting fee formula before city council met, Ford decided to cancel the debate altogether:

If the province won’t agree that $100 million then, folks, the deal is dead. We are not going to carry on with the casino debate.

I had planned to tell you today how I [intended to] recommend council allocate that revenue… The full $100m we could put towards transit: more specifically, [to] what council adopted last week, a subway extending the Bloor-Danforth subway line to the Scarborough Town Centre and north to Sheppard, and extending the Sheppard [line].

(According to all estimates this would provide only a fraction of the needed money.)

Ford also said that he had planned to move a separate motion which would see any additional property tax revenue generated from a casino put towards Toronto Community Housing’s major repair backlog, and another that would require any casino operator to “commit at least $4.5 million a year to a Toronto community benefits fund that would be divided up equally between every councillor and ward in the city…for improvements to their parks and public spaces.”

Painting a casino complex as a major economic boon to Toronto, Ford blamed the premier for dashing his hopes: “I don’t think the premier gets it.”


Context and Background: A Toronto Casino?

New-ish premier Kathleen Wynne has certainly been far cooler to the idea of expanded gaming in Toronto than her predecessors. (By contrast, former Finance Minister Dwight Duncan waxed enthusiastically about a “golden mile” on Toronto’s waterfront, anchored by a casino development.) Given that a clear majority of city councillors had already confirmed that they’d be voting against a casino proposal when the time came, however, Wynne’s reluctance may not be causing them much distress.

Not Over Yet

In light of all this, the mayor said that instead of holding a special meeting next week the casino item will be added to the agenda of the next regularly scheduled council meeting, at which point he’ll recommend that councillors simply go through a basic procedure that would see them receive the major staff report about a potential casino for information, but take no action.

One consequence of that: the issue wouldn’t actually be dead, since council wouldn’t have decidedly voted against a casino at all.

Just moments after Ford finished speaking, news broke that a petition was circulating among city councillors to override the mayor and hold next Tuesday’s meeting anyway. (A simple majority of city councillors—which is 23 of them—can trigger a meeting on a particular issue by signing a request that gets forwarded to the City clerk’s office.) Some councillors learned yesterday that the mayor was thinking of cancelling the casino meeting, and began talking amongst themselves about whether to proceed despite him. “It’s not up to him to make that decision,” Mike Layton (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina) told us shortly after the mayor spoke, saying that this debate has gone on for too long already and that many councillors want to have the issue settled one way or another for good: “we should be saying with conviction what we think should happen.” Several councillors told us that they do believe the required support exists to convene that special meeting, and that it is likely to go ahead on Tuesday despite the mayor’s announcement.

The Hosting Fee Question

Also right after Ford spoke came this response from the provincial finance minister, via a spokesperson: “The City of Toronto should make its decision based on the various characteristics of a casino. We appreciate the Mayor’s comments but we’ll put out the formula when we’re ready and are confident that it is fair to all municipalities.” In short, if Ford’s idea was to try to pressure the province into committing to a hosting fee, they’re not biting.

Meanwhile, Layton said, the hosting fee isn’t actually a decisive consideration for many councillors. “This has much more to do with what we’re hearing from our constituents, that this will overwhelm infrastructure and suck money out of the local economy,” he concluded, “and that the people of Toronto don’t want to be raising government money off of addiction.”

The question may well be moot: the Toronto Star is reporting that they’ve learned the proposed hosting fee for Toronto, including both a downtown casino and the existing Woodbine site, would be $53.7 million—far short of the $100 million needed to secure support from the mayor and most of the swing votes on council..