OLG head thinks Toronto casino vote is too close to call

The Globe and Mail

Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation President and CEO Rod Phillips, left, and OLG Chair, Paul Godfrey speak to reporters and members of the editorial board at The Globe and Mail in Toronto on March 11, 2013. (PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

When it comes to deciding whether Toronto should be home to a downtown casino, no means no. But yes would only mean maybe, says the chair of the province’s gaming agency.

A “yes” vote to a casino by Toronto city council this spring would be only a first step, Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. Chairman Paul Godfrey told The Globe and Mail’s editorial board Monday.

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The city would be offered chance to debate the casino question in about a year, he said, once OLG completes a bidding process and selects an operator with a specific development plan.

That message of reassurance from the OLG chairman comes as several councillors remain undecided as public opposition to building a large casino downtown appears to be gaining momentum.

Mr. Godfrey, who argues personally for a development along the central lakefront, also warned that if Toronto votes “no” then another area municipality will likely claim the prize.

Mr. Godfrey, a veteran of civic politics who headed the former Metro Council, said he believes the vote by council is too close to call and has not changed in recent months, despite campaigns by both sides. He predicts it will be won or lost by one or two votes.

Mayor Rob Ford has said he supports a casino because it would generate employment and new revenue for the city, but that enthusiasm is not shared by even some members of his own executive committee.

Some councillors – particularly those who represent downtown wards – have voiced strong opposition to a casino, either in principle or because of the damage they say it would do to surrounding businesses. Several councillors who are undecided say they are waiting to see the recommendations of a city manager’s report that will include feedback from citizens and is expected to provide details of the financial benefits for the city.

That report was expected this week, but has been delayed, meaning council likely will not debate the casino issue until May. City staff say they are waiting for more information from OLG to complete their report, but critics of the casino plan say the delay is an indication that the mayor does not have the support to get a yes vote at council.

Councillor Josh Matlow, a midtown councillor opposed to a casino downtown, said the city needs to vote on the issue and move on. “I think there has been a very widespread debate the casino lobby has thrown lots of money at this. It is time to make a decision,” he said.

“They are going to keep trying to drag this out to get their way,” he said. “If a vote were taken tomorrow, I don’t believe they would win.”

Mr. Godfrey said he is advocating for a waterfront casino, not because it would generate more revenue for OLG and the province, but because of what it would do for Toronto, in the form of increased tourism and convention space.

“We still believe the ideal site for the one in Toronto should be in a downtown location somewhere between the Port Lands and Exhibition Place,” Mr. Godfrey said.

“The facility that will be built in Toronto will be much more iconic than the facility that will be built in Markham or Vaughan,” he said later. “It’s a question of if we get the iconic one or the one that will produce the revenues.”

Several international operators, including MGM Resorts, Caesars Entertainment, Las Vegas Sands and Wynn, have expressed interest in building an integrated casino resort in the downtown, but the prospect of such as development faces opposition on council, in the community, and among some real estate companies with properties near proposed sites.

Mr. Godfrey said the same level of international interest does not exist for a facility outside the downtown. But if council says no, a casino will go somewhere else in the Greater Toronto Area, he said.

“I’ve been accused of putting a gun to council’s head. As a former municipal politician I am smart enough not to do that,” he said. Any operator who builds a facility nearby, such as in Vaughan or Markham, will demand assurances that they will not face competition from a future casino downtown. “That is why it becomes a yes or no,” he said.

But casino opponents who are portraying that council vote as a point of no return are mistaken, Mr. Godfrey said.

“A yes or no vote is just to decide whether you would consider being a host,” he said. “The first yes doesn’t necessarily, absolutely lock in that you must have it.”

If council gives the green light, OLG will begin seeking qualified bidders interested in operating a casino and once a short list is developed, it will begin a formal bidding process, with a successful candidate likely chosen next year.

Rod Phillips, chief executive officer of the OLG, said once the provincial agency has chosen a successful bidder to operate the proposed casino, Toronto will have a say in selecting a site and determining what is built. “The city absolutely has a second chance to say no,” he said.

Some questions, such as issues of parking or traffic cannot be answered until a firm proposal is in place, Mr. Phillips said.

Referring to the conceptual drawings released for Exhibition Place and the Metro Convention Centre, Mr. Phillips said: “We have seen visions, but they are just visions.”

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