Oh God, is the Toronto Casino Debate Back Again?
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Oh God, is the Toronto Casino Debate Back Again?

We hope you like reruns!

Oxford Properties' 2012 casino proposal. Image via Urban Toronto.

Oxford Properties’ 2012 casino proposal. Image via Urban Toronto.

Time is a flat circle. Three years after we declared a downtown casino “well and truly dead,” it’s back on the table. Here’s a quick guide to what happened last time, why we’re back here again, and what might happen.

The Story So Far

As Jamie Bradburn writes, Toronto casino proposals (and push-backs) go back to the 80s—with very little to show for it. The most recent go-round began in late 2012 when the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, looking for ways to increase revenue, raised the idea of putting a casino downtown—if Toronto gave them the go-ahead.

Casino proponents, like then-mayor Rob Ford, claimed it would be a cash cow for Toronto based on an overly optimistic estimate of how much revenue the Province would share with us. The construction industry jumped at the idea of all those new jobs; organized labour hoped that future casino employees would join their ranks. MGM, Oxford Properties and Caesars sent out gaggles of lobbyists and whipped up glossy “visions.”

Concerns about the social costs of gambling united opponents across the ideological spectrum. Casinos make a whopping 60 per cent of their revenue from the small fraction of problem gamblers. (As Kristyn Wong-Tam [Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale] pointed out, ethnic communities are disproportionately hard-hit.) Religious leaders declared their disapproval en masse.

A trifecta of former mayors—Art Eggleton, John Sewell, and David Crombie—released an open letter asking City Council to “beware the sales pitch.” They were not the only ones to question the economic viability of a casino. The final report from the City Manager also cast doubt on the project from an urban planning perspective: Torontoist wrote, “We cannot build a casino that is both an appropriate size for downtown and that will generate sufficient economic benefits.”

After months of debate and a strong grassroots opposition campaign, all these viewpoints (and more) were aired during public consultations. While feedback was mostly negative, the committee voted to support a downtown casino—plus a host of other conditions and qualifications.

Eventually, the whole thing unravelled. Premier Kathleen Wynne crushed the mayor’s hopes (and OLG chair Paul Godfrey’s insinuations) of an exceptionally high hosting fee, saying that there would be no “special deal” for Toronto. Rob Ford, by then mired in the crack video scandal, tried and failed to call off the special Council meeting. Then Council overwhelmingly rejected a downtown casino and, by a narrow margin, rejected a casino in Woodbine too.

Postscript: Paul Godfrey was quickly ousted from OLG. Last summer, Council ended up approving gaming expansion at Woodbine in principle—a site which has struggled economically for some time.

Flash Forward

Right, so here we are: August 2016. Mayor Tory, flanked by local Councillor Joe Cressy (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) and Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat, announces an ambitious plan to create a park over the rail corridor between Bathurst and Blue Jays Way. People who like parks are enthusiastic. People who like numbers are less enthused: there’s a hashtag (#RailDeckPark), a pretty rendering, no price tag, and no way to pay for it beyond Section 37 and 42 funds, which will only cover a fraction of the cost. It feels a bit like the need to negotiate with the railways for air rights is more important than downtown residents’ need for green space.

You would be excused for forgetting that Oxford Properties’s 2012 proposal to include a casino in its convention centre redevelopment also included a downtown park. It did! Here’s what we wrote then:

The proposal also mentions “a new 5.5 acre urban park connecting the core to the waterfront” but only vaguely—it is “contemplated” but nothing more—and doesn’t seem to be an essential part of the concept.

Conveniently, Oxford now says that “[if] plans to redevelop the convention centre site proceed, the deck and park space ‘would be an integral part of our conversation and our ambition.'”

Now, the New York Post reports Caesars wants to bid for a Toronto casino project, and everyone is buzzing again. Could a casino also be an integral part of Oxford’s “ambition”? Caesars…Oxford…yes? No? It’s between Woodbine and Durham, which is itself competing with…Pickering? Could the failed Woodbine Live project return?

Right now, there’s not a lot to go on. According to the lobbyist registry, Oxford and Caesars haven’t Zerg-rushed Council. Politicians aren’t making loud noises just yet, although they do have a debate this fall about increasing City revenue, and really hate the idea of “taxes.” Let’s suppose that a casino, whether downtown or at Woodbine, will come before Council again.

Wild Predictions

The makeup of Council is pretty much the same as the 2010–14 term and arguably slightly more right-leaning. The mayor’s policies are largely the same too. The outcome is probably going to be pretty much the same.

Possible outcome: A downtown casino proposal fails narrowly. A Woodbine casino proposal could pass, but nothing actually happens.

We told you time is a flat circle.

What’s Next

Unless someone finds a way to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow and break the time loop, at any time we could be forced to relive any number of other Council debates. For Council Watchers, this is our lot in life. We hope everyone saved their buttons/lawn signs/twibbons!

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