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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford during a debate on a proposed casino. (Chris Young For The Globe and Mail)
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford during a debate on a proposed casino. (Chris Young For The Globe and Mail)

Globe editorial

Don’t wager on a Toronto casino Add to ...

Large casinos do not sit comfortably in the centres of major cities. In greater Vancouver, the River Rock Casino is in Richmond – looking over the Strait of Georgia but also literally on the other side of the tracks – and the Casino de Montréal is not on the island of Montreal but on Île Notre-Dame (at the Expo 67 site). Toronto is now wrestling wth the prospect of a major casino; the outcome is likely to be much the same, and so it should be – the best option is in the suburbs, at the Woodbine Racetrack.

On its face, the idea of an integrated resort, as proposed by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. and MGM Resorts, seems promising. The worrying social consequences of casinos and their dubious, typically kitschy aesthetics could – in principle – be overcome by the gambling operation’s being contained as one component within a complex of a high-quality hotel and other complementary facilities.

More particularly, the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition, beside one of the Great Lakes and close to the underappreciated, genuinely historic Fort York, and not far from downtown Toronto, have much potential that is unrealized. They contain excellent trade-show buildings that are unfortunately not accompanied by any suitable hotels for conventions.

But the evidence assembled by the staff of the city government makes it clear that a casino on the CNE grounds would need to be relatively small – relatively, that is, to the high hopes of the prospective casino operators.

Exhibition Place, as it is called, has numerous functions, from an amusements midway to trade shows to a soccer field, and should not be overwhelmed by a gargantuan casino. Indeed, there is a case to be made that a convention centre would attract more visitors than a casino; the latter is not really a condition for the former.

There are also well-founded concerns about the impact of an integrated casino resort, with a shopping mall and hotel, on traffic in an already heavily congested area, and on neighbouring communities and existing commercial strips. Such resorts are inherently inward-looking, and the benefits will be concentrated.

Some people argue that a major casino in Toronto would have dynamic effects for the city’s economy. But the balance of the evidence goes to show that gaming establishments do not have any especially stimulative economic effects.

There will be construction jobs. There will be employment. But those things would result no matter what development were to occur on those lands. Think of it this way. Forget the casino. If a developer proposed a new stand-alone shopping mall at Exhibition Place, it would generate economic growth, but without much inflated boosterism or impassioned argument. Would it have gotten as far as the casino has? Likely not.

Studies of the socio-economic consequences of casino gambling show there is no special windfall to be had. Yet the rhetoric claims otherwise. Such arguments are apt to be advanced – with unwarranted emphasis – when it comes to proposed casinos and major-league sports franchises; sports teams do not bring the same social problems, but both tend to be promoted and subsidized by government. They are invariably a fertile source of tenuous economic propositions.

That is not to say Toronto should be ruled out as a site for a major casino. The Woodbine Racetrack, in the northwest of the city, is in several respects different from the CNE grounds. For one thing, there is abundant space there. For another, the potential economic stimulus is not to be sneezed at; this part of Toronto, known as Rexdale, has suffered more than its share from the decline of manufacturing in North America. It could benefit from some rejuvenation.

The site is eminently accessible from a whole set of major highways, and from Pearson Airport. It is already zoned for such a purpose, and the city already has an appropriate planning framework in place.

The owner, Woodbine Entertainment Group, is ready and willing (unlike the board of the Canadian National Exhibition Association). WEG is especially eager because, in last year’s budget, the provincial government withdrew its subsidy to the slot-machine operations at Woodbine and other such facilities. That has put in question the whole future of horse-racing in Ontario.

Woodbine is the location of the Queen’s Plate, a stakes race going back to 1860, cofounded by the celebrated engineer Sir Casimir Gzowski. This would give the casino a comparatively wholesome connection to a form of betting with some grounding in judgments of skill. Unlike a casino, a racing bettor does not wager against “the house,” but against other customers, hence the term “pari-mutuel.”

In the long run, Canadian governments should wean themselves off the casino business, but they are as much addicted to it as some of their more troubled customers. It is a business that should eventually be privatized and well regulated. In the meantime, policy-makers and citizens generally should liberate themselves from any illusion that casinos have a special economic dynamism. Ontario, like other heavily populated provinces, should recognize that large casinos are not well suited to being woven into the fabric of general commercial and residential life. They do not belong in the centres of major Canadian cities.

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