GAMBLING

MGM lobbying hard for Exhibition Place casino resort

The Globe and Mail

The president of the CNE board says the site is too small for the fair and a casino. (J.P. MOCZULSKI for The Globe and Mail)

In the weeks leading up to the first council vote on whether to allow a downtown Toronto casino, one consortium is behind the bulk of the lobbying, approaching key decision makers and pushing its vision for a gambling resort at Exhibition Place.

Select city councillors and the mayor have been given private briefings and a preview of MGM’s plan for a waterfront casino resort – all part of the pitch by the U.S. operator and its Canadian partner, developer Cadillac Fairview.

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The issue of whether Toronto will consider proposals goes before Mayor Rob Ford’s executive committee in mid-March. It is expected to pass, leading to a full council vote in April.

In February, when other would-be Toronto casino operators were mostly quiet, lobbyist records show the MGM-Cadillac Fairview team put on a full-court press, deploying top executives, legal counsel, as well as construction and marketing experts to meet with Mr. Ford and at least 13 councillors, as well as nearly a dozen political staff and city employees.

Executives from MGM Resorts and Cadillac Fairview have hosted civic politicians at the Sheraton hotel’s “Ginger Snap” suite , steps from City Hall, to show off options for a radical remake of Exhibition Place that includes new transit connections and lakeside paths.

The push began with meetings mid-month and continued through last week. Lobbyist records do not include meeting locations, but several councillors contacted by The Globe and Mail said they had been to the suite to see the casino model and hear the pitch.

While councillors provided few details, they recalled that the tabletop model and drawings envisioned the rerouting of the Martin Goodman trail to run along the waterfront at Ontario Place, bringing transit into Exhibition Place and expanding its GO station with a link to Liberty Village. The three-million-square-foot development would include shopping, expanded convention space, a hotel, underground parking and a casino in the area traditionally home to the CNE’s midway, which would be relocated further west or on the northern edge of Ontario Place.

“I tell you, they have done an impressive amount of work,” said Councillor Norm Kelly, a pro-casino member of Mr. Ford’s cabinet-like executive.

Mr. Kelly had believed he was heading to a group presentation a few weeks ago and was surprised to find himself in a personal briefing where officials presented a model with plastic overlays – placed on it “like Lego” – to show where different features of the development might fit on the site.

Before the MGM-Cadillac Fairview push, there had been very little lobbying by casino proponents in February, according to the lobbyist records. Former city councillor Kyle Rae, who is lobbying for Onex, had a meeting with one councillor on Feb. 4, while representatives for Caesars and Rock Gaming – who have a joint venture – met another councillor on Feb. 6.

Mr. Rae had two more casino-related meetings with councillors the rest of the month, as well as one phone call and a handful of e-mails. Caesars does not appear to have had any further contact with councillors in February.

Caesars wrote in a statement it continues to talk with potential partners, supporters and opponents of its Toronto casino plan and “remains respectful” of the consultation process set out by the city and Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp.

MGM and Cadillac Fairview, as well as lobbyists working on their behalf, were especially busy Feb. 12 and 13. The lobbyist records indicate the team met Mayor Ford and Councillor Doug Ford on Feb. 12, as well as Councillors Gary Crawford, Mark Grimes, and Mr. Kelly. On Feb. 13, the team met with Councillors Michael Thompson, Peter Milczyn, and Frank Di Giorgio.

MGM confirmed its representatives have been meeting with councillors and stakeholders but turned down requests from The Globe and Mail to see the plans, saying they are still a work in progress.

Some councillors said they were surprised by the extent of the MGM lobbying.

Deputy mayor Doug Holyday, who last fall was unsuccessful in his bid to bar casino lobbyists from City Hall, said he remained worried about the influence they could have over a critical vote.

“I’ve seen lobbyists affect decisions at council before,” he said. “I know how these things work. People try to be your friend and make it difficult for you to deny their requests.”

Mr. Thompson said he saw no reason for concern. He said increased lobbying is to be expected as a vote draws near.

While MGM has been more aggressive in its lobbying efforts than other casino operators, two other groups were especially active last month: UNITE HERE Local 75, and the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association.

The union – which has said it is in favour of the casino if it meets certain conditions, such as providing good unionized jobs and financial benefits to the city – sent more than 20 e-mails, mostly to staff of members of council. Amarjeet Chhabra, who is listed as a community and political organizer, made a handful of phone calls in addition to her e-mails.

The Hotel and Motel Association, which does not support a standalone casino but would support an integrated complex with an expanded convention centre, met with at least 14 councillors last month. Association president Tony Elenis is among the group’s registered lobbyists.

Those who had seen MGM’s plans were not necessarily impressed by what they saw.

Mr. Milczyn, another member of the mayor’s executive who has visited the suite and is chair of the city’s planning committee, worried such a mega-development would skew transit and infrastructure plans, forcing the city to focus on projects in that area to the detriment of other parts of the city.

Brian Ashton, the CNE president and a former councillor, was invited to the suite last week and said he was still considering the options presented to him. He said he remained unconvinced the CNE and the casino development could co-exist.

“We’ve heard their pitch,” he said. “They haven’t won the prize yet.”

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