Plans for a waterfront casino have cleared their first hurdle, but the odds of a massive gambling facility in downtown Toronto are far from a sure thing.
Mayor Rob Ford’s cabinet-like executive committee gave a qualified yes to a new casino Tuesday, voting 9-4 in favour. The mayor said he’s “optimistic” the new casino will be approved at council, with a meeting expected next month.
But with four of the mayor’s allies officially moving into the “no” camp, it’s unclear how the casino could get enough votes at council. More than half of councillors have said they oppose a downtown casino, though that could change as more information comes in.
The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. is rewriting its hosting fee formula, by order of the Premier, after The Globe and Mail reported Toronto was getting a far better deal than other municipalities. OLG is expected to provide the revised formula by the end of the month.
The four nays Tuesday were expected – all four councillors told The Globe last week they were leaning in that direction.
When asked how he can win at council when he got only nine votes from an executive made up of his allies, the mayor said: “Nine votes, I think that’s a good beginning.”
Support for the “no” side has been building in recent weeks, and during Tuesday’s debate it became clear that even some of the nine executive members who voted with the mayor have concerns about the casino plan. Councillor Gary Crawford spoke at length about how divisive the casino issue has become among his residents and staff, but voted in favour of sending the matter to council.
Councillor David Shiner said the province has put the city in a difficult position by pushing for expanded gambling, and moved that the matter be deferred. That motion did not carry and he ultimately voted with the mayor.
Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, the one member of the mayor’s executive who has said from the beginning he opposes a casino on moral grounds, was joined in the “no” vote by Councillors Jaye Robinson, Peter Milczyn, and Paul Ainslie.
Councillor Ana Bailao, a centrist on council, released a statement after the vote that said she, too, could not support a downtown casino. Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby, another swing vote, went on the record with her opposition last week.
Tuesday’s vote capped a two-day executive meeting, called to discuss city manager Joe Pennachetti’s report on a new casino and convention development. Mr. Pennachetti’s report, released last week, did not recommend council vote one way or the other on the downtown casino issue. He did, however, provide 43 conditions for the OLG to meet before a casino could be built.
On the first day of the meeting, members of the public, subject matter experts and casino executives, among others, took to the microphone.
The second day featured a surprise visit from Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, though he would not say whether he would support a new gambling facility, nor how many more officers would be needed to police it.
The meeting grew testy Tuesday afternoon, as councillors debated the issue among themselves.
Councillor Gord Perks, a casino opponent, said slot machines are dangerous and designed to make people mishandle their money.
Councillor Adam Vaughan, also opposed, said the hosting-fee numbers in the city manager’s report are inaccurate and showed a chart to that effect. That prompted Councillor Doug Ford to take aim at Mr. Vaughan’s “fancy little coloured graph.” Councillor Ford said it is easy to jump on the “no” bandwagon and complained Toronto was being treated like a nanny state. Mayor Ford then told executive he was not swayed by arguments against a casino, and described such statements as fear-mongering. He said the arguments portray people who go to the gambling facility at Woodbine for a night out with their wife or a few couples as addicts.
“I just don’t buy the arguments. You might as well ban food for fat guys like me,” he said, adding that people have to exercise some self-control.
Executive also voted in favour of expanding the gambling facility at Woodbine, as Mr. Pennachetti’s report had recommended. It rejected a motion that would have barred a new casino from the Port Lands, as the city manager’s report had said. Several new casino-related motions were added and approved at executive, including that potential gambling revenues from hosting fees be allocated to public transit expansion, that OLG give preference to proponents who have experience developing environmentally sustainable facilities, and that the casino operator commit to a local hiring policy that would put Toronto residents first.
Rod Phillips, president and chief executive officer of the OLG, said after the vote that he was pleased executive moved the matter on to council.
Maureen Lynett, one of the founders of the community group No Casino Toronto, said she is “cautiously optimistic” about defeating the proposal at council, given the results at executive.
“It certainly looks a lot better than four months ago,” she said.