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Casino development in Toronto: a source of Nimbyism or economic hope?

July 10, 2017

In 2013, Toronto City Council voted overwhelmingly against the proposal for the development of a downtown casino development by 40 to 4.  Early in the process, the figurative betting odds on approval of the proposal would have been close to even money.  The once embattled Toronto mayor Rob Ford and a several city councilors were early proponents of the development due to the belief that the proposal could create 10,000 new jobs and provide the city with annual hosting fees of $100 million.  However, in the end the revenues fell short of those that were initially promised by the province by about half.  But this wasn’t the only reason the proposal failed, a downtown location for the casino was highly unpopular among city residents.  As casino development dithers, off-shore online casinos, Canadian betting sites, and soon, legal Ontario betting sites are the beneficiaries of this political back and forth.  

The issue of building a casino in downtown Toronto, has been incredibly divisive from a political perspective.  Ford complained that "They've asked the council to battle it out so the premier doesn't get her hands dirty" referring to Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne.  Only a slight majority of Torontonians supported casino development within the City of Toronto in general, but of the locations mentioned as options for development, a downtown casino location was the least preferred location.  

Downtown Toronto is of course one of the most affluent parts of the city.  It is where many wealthy and influential people live and/or work.  The downtown area is not particularly in need of an increase in jobs and already has the highest concentration of transit infrastructure in the city.  It is therefore not surprising that most of those surveyed in the city subscribed to the idea of ‘not in my back yard’ (or nimby) with regard to the idea of a casino being developed in downtown Toronto.  The negative social ills a casino is thought to bring far outweigh any positive economic gains it could bring to an already affluent and bustling area. 

However, casino nimbyism is not as strong when development is being considered for more economically depressed areas on the periphery of the city or in the suburbs.  In 2016, when the Ontario Lottery and Gaming corporation (OLG) began the process of accepting bids to sell three of its slots machine gaming locations in the Greater Toronto Area to private casino operators, public officials began to get excited about the possibilities for their constituents.  As expected, local authorities of somewhat depressed areas are hoping that infrastructure development and increased jobs will soon follow.

Woodbine Racetrack in North Etobicoke in Toronto’s west end is one of these locations.  Councillor Vince Crisanti was quoted in the Toronto Star, expecting 2,500 badly needed new local jobs and hoped the development would provide increased motivation to extend the proposed Finch Avenue Light Rail Line west toward Woodbine.  

However, to fully capitalise on new casino development, casino operators are hoping that the province will further relax gaming laws and move ahead with single game sports betting.  Currently, all sports betting in Ontario is operated through the OLG’s sports game: Proline.  Proline requires that players win their bet or ticket based on several game outcome predictions, rather than a single game outcome.  Woodbine’s current CEO see’s single-game sports betting like that found at Las Vegas sportsbooks as a ‘real game-changer’ where Canadian sportsbooks could play a huge role in attracting customers to the new casino redevelopments.  But so far, all the provincial bills that have come to the floor of Ontario’s parliament have been voted down including the latest, bill c-221 which failed to pass in September 2016.  

In the case of Toronto, casinos and slots parlours have been tolerated on the periphery of the city, where the economic benefits and ancillary development are seen as far outweighing the negatives and social ills that may come along as associated with casinos and gambling.  However, in the end Toronto City Council may find the need to give in to the seemingly easy money that comes with hosting a casino in its core or along the waterfront, as they have continually complained of being starved of income by both the provincial and federal governments for important transit infrastructure and housing improvements.  Furthermore, there is precedent for casino development in the cores of large Canadian cities.  Montreal has hosted the largest casino in the country on Notre Dame Island since it opened in 1993.  In 2012, Vancouver City Council approved a proposed $532 million urban casino resort to be built next to BC Place Stadium, despite hundreds of people that attended the vote in order to voice their position against the development.  In the end despite the constant nimbyism, it may be difficult for Toronto councillors to continually turn back the financial opportunities that hosting a waterfront or downtown casino may present.