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Winners and losers: Toronto casino debate

The idea of a casino in downtown Toronto was dead on arrival. However, the special meeting at city hall on May 21, which also saw council vote against any gambling expansion at the Woodbine Racetrack, left many shocked and dismayed.

“That kills Woodbine,” Ward 11 councillor Frances Nunziata gasped into the microphone, from her speaker’s chair, after a motion opposing expansion at the racetrack won a tight 24-20 victory.

So foregone was the conclusion concerning a downtown casino that some councillors stood to protest having a meeting at all. The meeting was cancelled by the mayor the week prior, and only happened after 24 councillors petitioned to have it out, as scheduled, and send a message to the provincial government: Toronto doesn’t want a casino. Not downtown, at least.

As expected, council voted against a casino in any of the C1 study areas – areas identified by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation as possible casino sites, which included Exhibition Place, downtown, and the Port Lands – in a stunning 40-4 landslide. Councillors Norman Kelly, Vincent Crisanti, Giorgio Mammoliti, as well as Mayor Ford were the only holdouts.

Before the vote, the Mayor – who had, for the past year, been a vocal proponent of casinos – stood in council, to say he would not support a C1 area casino, and placed the blame for the about-face on the newly designated Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Prior to a public consultation on the casino, which cost the city $222,000, the OLG had stated Toronto would get between $50- to $100-million, annually, for hosting a casino. Casino supporters tended to latch-on to the higher number. But, under the original hosting fee formula, 100, or even 50 million dollars would be a sweeter deal for Toronto than other municipalities would receive.

When the premier stated Toronto would get no special deal, the OLG revised its hosting fee formula, which city staff estimate would amount to $39-million a year to host a downtown casino. That wasn’t good enough, even for many of the pro-casino councillors, the mayor included.

Photo by Glyn Bowerman

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

“What I do know, Madam Speaker, is that I will not support a casino if it’s not in the best interests of Toronto,” Ford said.

“Hosting a casino in Toronto that does little to address Toronto’s financial needs, and simply makes the provincial government richer is not in the best interests of Toronto.”

Ford put forward a motion in council to tell the province that the city does not support a new casino in any of the C1 designated areas. However, included in the motion was a recommendation to the province to bring-forth a detailed plan for the expansion of the C2 area – the existing Woodbine race track and slot machine venue – into a full-fledged casino.

That motion was defeated.

City estimates state that the C2 expansion at Woodbine would have amounted to $22-million dollars a year, putting the city’s estimate for the total annual hosting fee of both C1 and C2 at $61-million.

Ward 19 councillor Mike Layton, instead, tabled two motions. The first – the one with all but four council members’ support – recommended, in plain language, that “City Council oppose the establishment of any new gaming sites in the City of Toronto.”

The victory had Maureen Lynett, spokesperson and co-founder of the group No Casino Toronto, “speechless.”

“I’m stunned, I guess, we didn’t expect it,” Lynett told Swept. “We thought it was closer.”

No Casino Toronto had been campaigning for nearly a year against a downtown casino. Their petition, Lynett says, has more than 22,000 signatures.

Layton’s second motion, recommended council reject the idea of expanding the C2 area at Woodbine. This, for some, carried its own surprise.

Kevin Attard, a trainer at Woodbine, was one of those who were surprised.

“The councillors talking, the majority of them, sounded like they were in favour of the expansion,” Attard said after the meeting.

Attard was among the nearly one-third of the meeting’s public observers who were wearing neon yellow shirts declaring support for Woodbine. Earlier in the meeting, Ward 2 councillor Doug Ford presented a petition with more than 10,500 signatures in favour of the racetrack’s expansion.

Photo by Glyn Bowerman

Photo by Glyn Bowerman

“Expanding a casino at Woodbine only makes sense,” Attard said. “The location, obviously, is ideal for kind of gridlock, transportation, I mean the airport’s located there.”

Attard said the horse racing industry is dependant upon Woodbine’s success – adding that he’s seen a decline since the cancellation of Ontario’s Slots at Racetracks Program, last year.

“Everyone involved has taken a big hit,” said Attard. “Me, personally, as a trainer… I mean, I can feel it in my own end of it, right? I have less staff this year, less horses.”

Attard said he’s hopeful the premier – who is also the minister of agriculture and food – will make the success of his industry a priority.

But there are others who are less optimistic.

Bill O’Donnell, president of the Central Ontario Standardbred Association (COSA), says as the horse racing industry declines, the horse population in Ontario is dwindling.

In the standardbred industry, O’Donnell says, the number of mares bred has fallen from 4,000 in 2011, to 2,800 in 2012.

“This year, 2013, they’ll be lucky to breed 1000 mares in the province,” O’Donnell said.

COSA represents roughly 6,000 people employed, in various positions, by the standardbred (horses pulling jockeys by cart) horse racing industry in Ontario. His members race horses at Woodbine, and Mohawk in Campbellville, Ontario – both of which are owned by Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG).

As president, O’Donnell says his reaction to Tuesday’s city council vote was “shock.”

O’Donnell says he is worried that if the OLG builds a privately owned casino in municipalities surrounding Toronto, the private company will convince the province to pull slot machines from the not-for-profit Woodbine, and possibly Mohawk.

“They’ll want all those slots for themselves. They don’t want to share that at all,” O’Donnell says. Without the money made from slots, he worries Woodbine, which employs 7,500 people, will not continue to exist.

Woodbine Entertainment Group echoed the concerns of Attard and O’Donnell in a May 21 press release, stating: “without the long-term, sustainable revenue offered by expansion of the existing gaming facility at Woodbine, its horse racing operations – and, by extension, the entire sector – would be at risk.”

O’Donnell says horse racers currently have a two-year deal with WEG, which means $37-million, annually. This deal is essential, he says, in offsetting the cost of owning and maintaining the animals, which he says costs between $30,000 to $50,000 per horse, each year. O’Donnell added that beyond those two years, the future of the industry is unclear.

“Hopefully between now and then, you know, there’ll be something that’s viable and long term for us,” he said. “If not: there’ll be no racing, not in Ontario, in Canada.”

O’Donnell said for horse racers in Canada, Woodbine is the goal.

“This is the big leagues. This is it.”

Downtown, however, people opposed to a casino breathed a sigh of relief.

Jason Applebaum, a former problem gambling addict and current, vocal No Casino Toronto supporter, was at the May 21 council meeting, and said he is happy to keep the status quo on gambling in Toronto.

“I feel that expanding gambling would lead to more addiction,” Applebaum said. “It’s cited in many studies that proximity influences addiction. And, in my case, when I moved close to a casino, that’s when my addiction really took off.”

“I was half expecting city council to okay Woodbine, but, to my amazement, most of them stuck together and pretty much agree with what my vision of Toronto is,” said Applebaum.

“I’m pretty happy about that.”