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Conceptual view of temporary casino facility in Toronto. (Handout)
Conceptual view of temporary casino facility in Toronto. (Handout)

Diagnosing Toronto's casino fever: How much is the city willing to gamble? Add to ...

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.

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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.

The game

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.

Mr. Phillips at OLG said some of those details are available in bid documents now available for other regions of the province. He said details of a Toronto agreement would be available by the time council makes its decision in April, but not for the January public meetings.

Toronto’s decision is central, he said, to the provincial plan and to municipalities throughout southern Ontario who are considering a casino as well. “It’s hard to overstate the importance of the decision in the GTA,” he said.

City manager Joe Pennachetti says his focus remains on the three downtown sites as well as the Woodbine Racetrack. Public consultations will begin the second week of January, with five open houses. Online workbooks and feedback forms will be available in the new year. “We are going as fast as we can,” he said.

Councillor Michael Thompson, chair of the city’s economic development committee, expects even more options will surface if the city approves a casino plan. “We could be surprised with something else coming forward,” he said. “I don’t know what that something else is, but we know people are around trying to find other locations.”

While the consultation process unfolds, city councillor Paula Fletcher says she is worried about the disruption the casino fever is having on existing land planning, especially when private individuals are promoting development on public lands. Ms. Fletcher, who represents the area that includes the Port Lands, points out the area was the subject of a year-long study by the city and Waterfront Toronto on ways to speed the transformation of the vast industrial precinct. Both agreed a casino was not in the cards.

“Did we waste our time for a whole year?” Ms. Fletcher asks. “We’re back into one of these Port Lands fiascos starting up again.”

Toronto Port Lands Corp., the city agency that holds the property, says it is aware of Mr. Sprackman’s plans, but is taking no position on the casino question.

The players

Several U.S. operators – MGM Resorts International, Caesars World Inc., Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Wynn Resorts, Ltd. have come to town to scout sites. Closer to home, Onex Corp. head Gerry Schwartz , owner of the Tropicana, who also has four Alberta casinos, has indicated interest in the Toronto area, but not necessarily the downtown. Developer Larry Tanenbaum, chair of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., also signalled his interest in partnering with a major casino operator in a Toronto bid.

Until now, the vocal casino operators have been the U.S. players. MGM Resorts is making no secret about its intention to build at Exhibition Place, and Caesars has released conceptual plans for a Convention Centre project proposed by Toronto developer Oxford Properties Group Inc.

If Toronto rejects the downtown option, MGM spokesman Alan Feldman says the company will look at Markham or Vaughan, not Woodbine. As for the spate of speculation, Mr. Feldman said it is standard when a casino comes to town. “The first level of activity is going to come from land owners, local developers. They hear about this and they think, wait a minute, rather than build personal storage units or whatever, we could build a casino and make a lot more money doing that,” he said.

For his money, Doug Ford says he still favours the city-owned Port Lands property as the downtown option because of its location and the rental income it would generate for the cash-strapped municipality.

He figures the waterfront site, Exhibition Place and the Metro Convention Centre on Front Street are the only three that are really in the running. “Unless someone comes up with some wild idea,” he adds.

In the zone

Everyone is talking about whether the city is ready for a casino, but is it ready for two?

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation’s plan to increase the number of casinos province-wide includes the creation of 29 “gaming zones” with one facility in each. Two of those zones include land within Toronto.

The first zone includes three areas: the downtown waterfront; a region to the west that extends from south Etobicoke into Mississauga; and another north of Steeles Avenue that includes Markham and Richmond Hill. The second zone is a strip that runs on either side of Highway 427 north into parts of Vaughan and Brampton and includes the Woodbine Racetrack, home to an existing OLG casino.

If Toronto rejects a casino downtown, it could still expand Woodbine or build a casino in the other zones.

Since the province has said it will not force a casino on an unwilling community, operators are considering multiple sites in case one is taken off the table.

But the zone that includes downtown Toronto is the only one of the 29 that does not have an agreement with at least one municipality. In some, such as the Kingston region, local governments are competing for the right to host a facility, says Rod Phillips, head of the OLG.

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