Two days before news broke this past Friday that Oxford Properties is planning to redevelop the Metro Toronto Convention Centre lands and is proposing a casino on the block immediately north of the SkyDome, the Toronto and East York Community Council hosted a special public consultation meeting to gauge reactions to the Ontario Government's announcement that they are considering potential casino sites in a downtown ward.

Members of the public packed council chambers at City Hall for the meeting. Currently, Toronto zoning bylaws prohibit casinos in the city, so this meeting was convened to discuss whether zoning should be amended to permit them. There are two loose exceptions to this outright prohibition. The first is Ontario Place which is provincially owned and falls in a grey area under City zoning. Second is Exhibition Place which is governed by a separate board of directors, and currently does not have zoning that would prohibit a casino. At the time the meeting was held councillors were working with the assumption that two areas were under consideration for a casino; one being at Exhibition Place, with the other being the Metro Toronto Convention Centre site. 

Toronto and East York Community Council TorontoToronto and East York Community Council gather in Council Chambers to hear from the public. Image by Dumitru Oncenau.

The meeting drew a mix of those with industry interests, as well as ordinary citizens from the various downtown wards. With overwhelming opposition, citizens spoke out against the idea of any zoning changes that would permit a casino in any part of the city, not just downtown. 

First to speak at the meeting was Peter Tabuns, MPP for Toronto-Danforth and a former City Councillor for same the ward.

“The majority reject any new casino on the Toronto Waterfront. I tabled letters and emails at Queen's Park voicing their opposition to the McGuinty party's plans to locate a casino in the Port Lands… they see a proposal that will increase addiction problems and crime in the city. My best estimate of their sentiment is that 70% of them reject a casino proposal on the Port Lands. People with gambling addiction problems said that they did not want a casino nearby because it would be a huge source of temptation for them”. Others talked about their childhood experience with gambling-addicted parents and the damage it did to their lives.”

Councillors brought up the 1997 city referendum question on casinos, which yielded a response was 72% opposed to locating a casino in Toronto. A few years ago council also voted for their approval of the Woodbine Live proposal in north Etobicoke, and again voiced their opposition to casinos at that time. The approved zoning included a specific provision that a casino could not locate at the Woodbine Live development.

Peter Tabuns MPP Toronto Council casinoPeter Tabuns, MPP for Toronto-Danforth, speaking in opposition to a potential casino in Toronto. Image by Dumitru Onceanu.

A follow up speaker, Erika Ritter painted a picture for councillors, comparing Toronto with other world cities.

“First of all there's Toronto's perrenial obsession with being considered world class, and I have a question: How many truly world class cities do councillors know that are noted for having casino complexes at their heart, instead of urban development and public amenities which further enhance the beauty of their natural setting? How about famous Manhattan casino, have we heard of that? The huge gaming centre right beside the Eiffel Tower in Paris? Never heard of that, never been there? How about the gaming complex right beside the Houses of Parliament beside the Thames?”

Councillors by now had already heard participants speak about the serious risks to small business, the potential for a casino to suck the life out of its local neighbourhood and to cause many other service businesses to simply go out of business. Former resident of New Jersey Alexander Greer was on hand to give a poignant first hand account of Atlantic City in the years following gambling's legalization there in 1976.

“Although casino operators now deny it, casinos were first proposed to revitalize Atlantic City. I can clearly recall the unceasing TV, radio, and newspaper adds, promising jobs for residents, windfall revenue for the city, and increased tourism for the entire region. Citizens were hopeful. Perhaps Atlantic City would be saved after years of neglect and decay.

The citizens of New Jersey were fooled. Not one promise was fulfilled. Atlantic City was once named the slum by the sea. Now it remains to the sorrow of many, the slum by the sea, but it now has 12 casinos. Ironically, the rest of New Jersey shore is undergoing a renaissance and economic revitalization without casinos. Gambling has done little to revitalize the rest of Atlantic City and its business community. Atlantic City has been described as two cities. One: casinos. The other, a city of boarded up buildings with an unemployed minority work force. The state has just given $300 Million to yet another casino to revitalize Atlantic City yet again.

It is important to understand that casino owners and operators target distressed cities. They target them with promises of pots of gold, jobs, and revenue at the end of the rainbow. The only ones getting the gold are the casino operators. Gambling corporations not only prey on poor people to fill their coffers, but also on desperate and distressed communities to open those casinos.

But Toronto is not distressed. It is a vibrant city, with a healthy and growing economy, a lively arts and theatre scene, museums, world class universities, hospitals and research institutions, professional sports teams, great restaurants and night clubs, and an international reputation for livability, and we the people are not desperate. We know we have challenges. I am arguing against casinos because it will label Toronto and its people as both desperate and without hope.”

In follow up questioning, Councillor Adam Vaughan asked Greer what used to be in the boarded up businesses around the casinos? His answer:

"This will be a touch emotional for me because as a kid my parents used to take me to the boardwalk. Atlantic City was a vibrant city. There were restaurants, small shops, and residences, people lived there. Those are no longer there. If it's not a casino it's a parking lot. Atlantic city does not have a single solitary supermarket. You now have to go to the next town over to get your groceries."

Of the 30+ speakers who participated that evening, only a few spoke in favour of the project and all had some sort of a stake in the proposal or the jobs it would generate. Three labour unions were represented, including the carpenters union and the union representing gaming employees across North America. Most were unconditionally in favour of casinos and mentioned the need to create good jobs that can support people and their families. The only other speaker in favour of casinos was registered lobbyist Bill Rutsey, CEO of the Canadian Gaming Association, who was questioned at length by council members.

“There's a lot of emotion and misinformation, and to help shed some light on the issue we've just launched a new website, TorontoCasinoFacts.ca, which is been designed to cut through the rhetoric, provide the information so that people can come to an informed opinion. The question currently under consideration isn't 'should casino gaming be allowed in Toronto'. That's already been asked and answered in the affirmative. The question is whether or not a destination resort of which about 10% will be the casino component should be located and developed in the downtown core.”

Rutsey also claims that over 6000 construction jobs and 12,000 full/part time jobs would be created, and that this "would be too good of an opportunity to pass up" and a "once in a lifetime, game changing, iconic entertainment development.”, also imploring the councillors to "get the facts".

Bill Rutsey, CEO Canadian Gaming Association Toronto Council casinoBill Rutsey, CEO of the Canadian Gaming Association, speaking in favour of a potential casino. Image by Dumitru Onceanu.

During follow up questioning however, councillors uncovered Rutsey's incomplete knowledge of the economic assumptions underlying his 'facts'. When asked by Vaughan if he could cite published economic studies that underpinned his assertions on jobs, Rutsey answered that he couldn't, other than admitting they came from proponent the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission. One of the more stunning revelations came after Rutsey was twice asked if his association had any registered lobbyists currently working at City Hall. Rutsey twice denied it, only to have Council Mihevic reveal that a lobbyist had in fact just visited him that afternoon. Rutsey's question period was the longest of all the speakers, and his responses left both councillors and the public with more questions than concrete answers. 

Later in the evening one speaker cited a statistic reported by Florida's Attorney General: for every $1 gambled, $3 is spent on social costs. Also mentioned was a study by California's Attorney General showing an increase in crime and theft in those areas near canadian online casino gambling establishments. An internal RCMP report also mentions an increase in organized criminal activity as a result of the BC casinos.

Liz Pimentel, representing a union for hotel and gaming workers stated support for a casino, only if certain conditions to be met. Support should only be shown if:

"- It creates thousands of good union jobs.

- It is a good financial deal for the city in terms of the City's share of financial revenues.

- It makes significant contributions to local infrastructure including transit, parks, and public space.

- It includes a local hiring and training program.

- It meets a high level of green development standards."

“I believe this debate should be reframed somewhat. One of the key things we've learned in the gaming industry is the difference between a good operator and a bad operator. When gaming workers work for a good operator, we see good stable jobs, the kind you can raise a family with. We see health and wellness benefits, pensions, workload protections, and a commitment to full time work.”

Pimentel also mentioned that council really should be focused on picking an operator first, before picking an appropriate location, leading Vaughan to raise concerns that there might already be an exclusivity agreement in place for a potential Exhibition Place casino, and by virtue of picking a site first, they may inadvertently be picking an operator without having had their opportunity to do their due diligence. 

Toronto and East York Community Council councillors Toronto casinoCouncillors listening to deputants. Image by Dumitru Onceanu.

Overall, many opinions were voiced as to why a casino would be a bad idea in the downtown area. Social considerations included the prospect for an increase in gambling addictions, temptations for those who seek refuge from their own personal weakness in that regard, increased social costs without much benefit in return, the prospect for an increase in organized crime in association with gambling. Traffic reasons were also heavily cited as a major hurdle to locating a casino downtown. To put things in perspective, Adam Vaughan pointed out that the approximately 7000 parking spaces required by the OLG for a casino of this size equals the entire parking lot at Yorkdale mall, vertically crammed into the space of a city block. How many underground, and potentially above ground, parking floors would be necessary is uncertain at this time, but regardless of the construction hurdle that would pose, the sheer scale of traffic volume that it would generate would choke the already over-congested downtown arteries. Comments also revealed citizens' real skepticism with the talking points put forth by the Gaming Association representative, and all spoke to the negative effects that gaming has been reported in other cities across North America. Some comments like Kathy Traill's dealt with crime statistics:  

“I want to talk about how it's untrue that gambling doesn't affect people. 40% of white collar crime is committed by gambling addicts. Research suggests that $1.3 Billion per year is related to gambling. 57% of 400 surveyed gamblers admitted to stealing to maintain their gambling habits. Collectively they stole $30 Million for an average of $135,000 per individual. The University of Illinois says that as a direct correlation of state sponsored legalized gambling, 0.5% of the US population became new criminals."

Following the discussion, councillors debated and passed motions seeking more information from City staff, to be reported on for the next meeting on November 6.

Toronto and East York Community Council councillors Toronto casinoLast WednesdayCouncillors listening to deputants. Image by Dumitru Onceanu.

During their debate, councillors cited many of the comments recently heard. Comments by Councillor Fragadakis summed up the evening:

“Overwhelmingly residents are opposed to a casino in Toronto. Just from a count of emails, opposition is greater than 90%. Many other jurisdictions are going through the same debate, including Florida. Opposition to casinos in Florida is coming from the Florida Chamber of Commerce which argues that casinos would canibalize existing businesses and would cost rather than create good jobs. They go on to point out that when mega casinos were introduced to Atlantic City, 40% of restaurants and approximately 30% of retail shut down. Additionally, gambling economies lead the nation in unemployment, foreclosures, violent crime, and personal bankruptcies. I think it is worth repeating that it's from the Florida Chamber of Commerce. When a business group like that has such misgivings of the economic value of casinos, it should make us doubt the rosy economic projections those with a vested interest are making in order to justify a casino here in Toronto.

Tonight we've heard about the problems with casinos in Atlantic City and other American cities. One speaker pointed out that casinos tend to get built in communities that are desperate and in need of revitalization. This reminds me of what one of my constituents wrote: 'In Toronto we have a ton of festivals and events that draw a ton of people from all over the globe. Opening up a casino would mean that we've run out of ideas and are desperate for anything that will provide us with mediocre short term gains.'

I don't think we've run out of ideas. Our economic development team here in the city is doing wonderful work. The chair of the Economic and Cultural Committee pointed out recently that we've create thousands of jobs through these initiatives. For example, this year Toronto was ranked the fourth best place in the world to start an IT company and additionally, a leading human resource provider for the IT industry recently ranked Toronto the second best place to look for an IT job in North America. We have a serious plan for economic growth and job creation and it is actually paying off. I'm not sure we need to gamble on a casino here. Instead I think we should spend our time and resources focusing on our strengths. The residents of my ward have said loud and clear that a casino is not a healthy addition to this city's economic vision. I do not support any rezoning that would allow a casino in the city.”