There are really only two good reasons for a city to overlook all the ills that flow from gambling and welcome a casino: one, because the city is so depressed that it needs help spurring growth and, two, because it is so hard up that it needs help paying for city services. Toronto is neither.
This is not some hollowed out American city desperate to revive its fortunes by luring a casino developer. Toronto boasts one of the fastest growing downtowns in North America, with more high-rise buildings under construction than any other city on the continent.
As the city planning department puts it, “Toronto’s downtown area is a healthy, vibrant and cosmopolitan area supporting the city’s fastest growing neighbourhoods and is home to one third of Toronto’s jobs. Where some North American cities, like Detroit, Cleveland and Baltimore, have embraced casinos as a strategy to assist in revitalizing their languishing downtown areas and to stimulate economic development and recovery, this is not required in Toronto’s downtown area.”
Yes, downtown could use more convention space, and at least one developer has offered to expand the Metro Toronto Convention Centre as part of a casino complex. But does a robust city like ours really need a casino in order to build more convention space?
We have seen plenty of development in the neighbourhood around the convention centre on Front Street, with more proposals in the pipeline for offices, hotels and shopping space. Surely we can find a way to redevelop the convention centre without depending on slot machines and blackjack tables.
As for the revenue that a casino could bring in, does city hall really want to join the dozens of North American governments that have become dependent on gambling to pay their bills? Thanks in part to the cost-cutting efforts of Mayor Rob Ford, the city has made real progress getting its books in order. Mr. Ford himself has said again and again that Toronto has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. How can he now say that the city needs the revenue from a casino?
True fiscal conservatives argue that governments should live within their means, spending only as much money as they can raise through a level of taxation that they can justify to voters. Relying on gambling profits to pay the bills is a sneaky end run. And what happens if, for unforeseen reasons, the profits dry up, as they have at other Ontario casinos?
Even if you believe that it is okay for governments to live off the avails of gambling, it seems unlikely that the city would get the vast sums it seeks in return for permitting a downtown casino. City manager Joe Pennachetti all but put his little finger in his mouth like Dr. Evil when he demanded a minimum of 100-million dollars in so-called hosting fees.
It will be hard to square that demand with Premier Kathleen Wynne’s insistence that no city will get a special revenue-sharing deal.
Mr. Pennachetti listed no fewer than 43 conditions for accepting a downtown casino, and Mr. Ford’s executive committee tacked on a few more this week. Such a sweet deal seems all the more unlikely given the limits on the size of the casino floor, the number of hotel rooms and number of parking spaces that the city wants to impose. Toronto is like an employee who, offered a job they don't really want, asks for an exorbitant raise and a corner office. It is a demand that seems almost designed to invite refusal.
Gambling is for governments that don’t have the discipline to pay the bills from their own resources. Casinos are for cities that can’t attract development through their own virtues. To put in bluntly, casinos are for losers. Toronto is a winner. This city doesn’t need a casino.