Nowhere are the duelling visions for the city clearer than in two proposals for Toronto’s Port Lands.
In one set of plans, the corner of Cherry and Commissioners streets is home to a riverside park, playgrounds and paths that hug the shores of a naturalized mouth for the Don River, part of a new community of homes and businesses.
In the other, 4,300 slots and 150 gaming tables fill four temporary buildings, ringed by rows of parking that stretch to the water’s edge, an easy-to-assemble setup that could put gambling on downtown’s doorstep within months of approval.
In the coming weeks Toronto residents will get a chance to weigh in on all the options as the city begins public consultations on the contentious topic of adding a casino to the downtown landscape.
Those on the side of casinos say the city can’t turn its back on the millions gaming could bring – money that could be used for roads and transit and the kind of transformation represented by the redevelopment of the Port Lands.
“It’s a very nice plan, but without money, nothing is going to happen,” says real-estate developer Jerry Sprackman, owner of The Docks, who is shopping around his pop-up casino plans for the Port Lands, as well as drawings for a full resort on the site of his Polson Pier night club. He says his dream has attracted the interest of two unnamed casino companies.
Mr. Sprackman is wading into a crowded field.
Talk of a casino in downtown Toronto has created a frenzied competition, with developers and gaming operators manoeuvring for a shot at one of the country’s most lucrative gaming licences. The city announced plans for public consultations Friday, including a new website dedicated to the casino debate, and the city manager is expected to make recommendations to the city’s executive committee in March. City council will then decide in April if it backs the province’s plans to expand gambling in Toronto. In the meantime, the prospect of a new casino worth as much as $3-billion is at the centre of a land rush across the GTA.
“People are going crazy,” says Toronto city councillor Doug Ford, who once had his own flamboyant plans for the Port Lands that included a Ferris wheel and monorail. Mr. Ford says he’s been taken aback by the number of land owners trying to work the casino angle. “Everyone with a postage stamp is looking to put a casino on it,” he says, shaking his head.
The potential for partnerships is so high that Newton Glassman, managing partner of Catalyst Capital, the majority owner of Gateway Casinos & Entertainment Ltd., which operates gambling sites in British Columbia and Alberta, says he’s been approached “numerous times” by developers, even though he hasn’t thrown his hat in the ring.
Toronto’s take from a casino and entertainment complex – the kind of “golden mile” on the waterfront envisioned by Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan – was pegged by a city report at as much as $195-million annually in hosting fees and taxes, although that number has been criticized as optimistic. The report focused on three downtown sites – Exhibition Place, the Metro Convention Centre on Front Street and the Port Lands.
Within real estate circles and at city hall, other locations also are being floated – along with the concept of a temporary facility that would start generating money for the city and the province within a matter of months while a complex is being constructed.
Rod Phillips, head of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp., said temporary casinos have operated in the past and that is an option for Toronto if the city supports it. A temporary gambling floor could be located near the permanent site or in another part of town, he said.
New sites being mentioned as possible locations for a temporary or permanent facility include the former Unilever property at the foot of the Don Valley Parkway and the LCBO headquarters on Lake Shore Boulevard.
But how realistic are all these plans, and how many more permutations will come? Everyone is jockeying for space – including mega U.S. casino operators – but the OLG still hasn’t released terms of the cuts for these operators, or how long their operating contracts could last.
“It’s difficult, if not impossible, for anybody to have a credible – credible being the critical word – business plan without knowing what the rules are,” says Gateway’s Mr. Glassman.
Operators are not the only ones wondering about the details of the provincial deal. The province began its reforms of the gaming system with an eye to its own bottom line. The OLG contributed $1.9-billion to provincial coffers in 2011 and the expansion comes as Ontario faces mounting pressure to find new sources of revenue and tackle its deficit. The province is staying mum on the slice of profits it would give to Toronto and to potential operators.