Toronto Casino Well and Thoroughly Dead
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Toronto Casino Well and Thoroughly Dead

City council rejects both a new downtown casino, and an expansion of gambling at Woodbine.

Mayor Rob Ford at the final council debate.

City council rejected all proposals for expanded gaming in Toronto today. By a resounding vote of 40–4 they opposed the establishment of any new downtown casino (the dissenters were Rob Ford, Norm Kelly, Vincent Crisanti, and Giorgio Mammoliti). This was widely expected, in the wake of a concerted grassroots campaign opposing a new facility, and news that the provincial government would be giving Toronto much less in hosting fees than casino advocates were hoping. Much more surprising was the rejection also of any expanded gaming at Woodbine, which already has slot machines—that was by a much closer margin of 24-20. Woodbine officials have maintained that they need to expand in order to stay alive at all. Even though Toronto has rejected a casino, neighbouring municipalities such as Vaughan might permit one; Woodbine representatives say this competitive pressure will put them out of business.

In the middle of it all was Rob Ford, who surprised everyone by moving a motion to reject casinos even though he has been one of their strongest proponents.

Proponents of expansion at Woodbine waiting for council to vote.

Ford’s move didn’t actually reflect a change of heart on the casino issue; rather, it was a calculated attempt to try and embarrass Premier Kathleen Wynne. The mayor blames her for reducing the hosting fee Toronto initially expected, and thus for killing the proposal entirely. From his speech today:

One year ago, the government of Ontario asked Toronto to host a new casino in this great city.

Since then, Toronto has spent a year grappling with this issue. We made significant progress with the previous premier and his finance minister, as well as the OLG. Those positive discussions continued with the new minister of finance. But when the matter reached the premier’s office it had fallen apart.

Despite the fact that this was the government’s idea from the very beginning, we carried the load. We did all the hard work. Despite the fact [that] a lot of progress was made to find a formula that worked for Toronto and other host cities, and for the rest of the province, it now appears Premier Wynne has chosen to go in a different direction. Which direction that is, we’re not quite sure.

I don’t know why the government has changed its mind. I don’t know why it will not support a fair share for Toronto—and not just for Toronto, Madam Speaker, but every other host in this great province. I don’t know why the premier doesn’t support 10,000 good-paying union jobs.

What I do know, what I do know, Madam Speaker, is that I will not support a casino that is not in the best interests of Toronto. I never campaigned on this, Madam Speaker. I thought that if we could create 10,000 good-paying jobs, and bring in $100 million or more in revenue to help transit and to help people in Toronto community housing, that I believed that was the right move—and I still do.

Hosting a casino in Toronto that does little to address Toronto’s financial needs, that simply makes the provincial government richer, is not in the best interests of Toronto. The province wants money for nothing. They are not going to put out one red cent into the development of a new convention or entertainment complex. The financial risk will be entirely on the private sector. They are not willing to accept a single drop of political risk. Once again, they have asked the council to battle it out, so the premier doesn’t get her hands dirty.

Inconveniently for the mayor, well before today’s meeting, a majority of councillors had already announced they were opposed to a casino, regardless of what the hosting fee might be, citing concerns ranging from increased addiction to cannibalizing local businesses to an unmanageable increase in traffic. Mike Layton (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina) has been leading the charge against a downtown casino, which likely would have been in his ward. After the vote he told reporters: “This wasn’t just about a hosting fee, this was about the impact on the citizens of Toronto and the people of Ontario that don’t want us to put forward a policy that encourages more people to get addicted to gambling and raise money in that fashion.”

Nick Eaves, CEO of Woodbine Entertainment Group, said he was very disappointed in the vote against an expansion at Woodbine and called the decision “a real shock,” but also tried to put a brave face on things. Though he and others from Woodbine said that without an expansion of gaming there, the site would eventually die, today he said, “We’re confident this isn’t the end.” He is now, he said, pinning his hopes on the premier: “She’s made clear that she supports an ongoing and sustainable horse-racing and horse-breeding industry in the province. She’s made clear that in her view, in order for that to happen, there needs to be an integration of the industry back with the province’s provincial gaming strategy.”