It will certainly be the biggest wager ever made at Woodbine Racetrack.
Some time this fall, the earth will literally begin to move for Woodbine Live – a transformative, $1-billion plan to turn the long-neglected, windswept reaches of northwest Toronto into a major regional tourist destination.
In one mighty pull of the mega-project slot machine, the Woodbine Entertainment Group is aiming to salvage the future of the declining horse-racing industry and, not incidentally, of the polyglot, low-income, high-unemployment, visible minority neighbourhood that surrounds it.
A sure bet? Depends who you ask. Despite a robust chorus of local cheerleading, serious questions – about both the project’s viability and its possible impact – remain.
Scheduled to open in the summer of 2013, Woodbine Live will sprawl across 81 hectares of real estate owned by the non-profit WEG – part of the largest single tract of undeveloped land in Toronto. Its equity partner: Baltimore’s family-owned Cordish Companies, one of America’s premier developers, specialists in creating blockbuster entertainment districts.
Entertainment will certainly loom large at Woodbine Live. Although officials declined to confirm details, The Globe and Mail has learned that the partnership is in negotiations with Radio City Music Hall; it would be its first satellite venue outside of Manhattan. As it stands, company information boasts a 6,000-seat concert hall – with no name attached to it just yet.
That venue would be in addition to a 600-room, four-star hotel, a 16-screen luxury AMC cinema, a 100,000-sq.-ft. conference centre, nightclubs, cafés, restaurants, 800,000 sq. ft .of retail space featuring a Milan-style galleria, a skating rink and 400-meter canal, heated sidewalks and 18 bonfire zones (for winter), an outdoor performance venue that will accommodate 10,000 people – as well as the existing anchor tenant, the racetrack and Woodbine casino, which will soon boast 3,000 slot machines and 60,000 sq. ft. of gaming. A projected second phase will add a million square feet of office space and 3,000 condo and townhouse units.
In the process, the developers say they will create an estimated 5,000 construction jobs and 9,000 permanent positions, with local residents given first shot at the openings.
But while similar entertainment complexes have worked well in once-moribund, crime-ridden American cities, it’s not clear whether the concept can be transplanted to Toronto’s remote Jamestown (née Rexdale), one of 13 “priority” neighbourhoods deemed critically in need.
“It’s a site that definitely needs some kind of an investment,” concedes Steven Webber, an assistant professor of urban planning at Ryerson University. “But the American equivalent usually takes place in the inner city, with waterfronts or sports venues, and easy accessibility. Here, they’re transferring the model to a suburban context.” For the moment, Prof. Webber remains agnostic.
Other issues seem equally problematic. Although acres of surface parking are planned, the developers are lobbying for a much-improved public-transit system, including the now-delayed Eglinton Crosstown LRT and/or a high-speed link to Pearson International Airport, just a few kilometres away. The hope is to lure some of Pearson’s 30-million plus annual air travellers.
Also unanswered is whether a vast majority of the new jobs will fall into undesirable categories: menial service positions, low-paying and part-time.
And even if the transformation succeeds, will it do so with a “cripple thy neighbour” effect – transferring local problems, including outbreaks of Bloods and Crips gang warfare, somewhere else?
For the moment, these questions are submerged by a wave of anticipatory euphoria.
For Albion Neighbourhood Services, which caters to a largely immigrant community never far from the poverty line, the definitive argument in favour of Woodbine Live is jobs. “People here are positive and hopeful,” says director Lisa Edwards, “because having jobs allows families to be empowered.”
Local politicos echo the cheers. “Woodbine Live,” says Etobicoke North councillor and mayoralty candidate Rob Ford, a champion from the beginning, “will revitalize all of Rexdale. It can’t happen soon enough.”
Mr. Ford’s Etobicoke North council colleague, Suzan Hall, says virtually everyone in the area is on-side. “The average citizen is very pleased. The unions had wanted a commitment from the developer on rates of pay, but we can’t insist on that.”
Instead, Woodbine Live has anted up an estimated $10-million to underwrite construction of a training and employment centre on the site; it will be run by the private sector.
In return, it has received the most generous tax inducement Toronto has ever offered – an unprecedented waiver of an additional $120-million in property taxes that Woodbine Live would have generated over the next 20 years.
Assuming issuance of building and other regulatory permits, groundbreaking is expected to begin by November.
Predictably, no one is more enthusiastic about Woodbine Live than the developer’s point man, Blake Cordish. While his company would not comment which specific tenants were signed for the project, he said that the venture on the whole is a no-brainer: “a unique, strategically positioned piece of real estate, two miles from an international airport, centrally located for Southern Ontario. It already attracts six million visitors a year. This is win-win-win – for business, for the community and for the city.”
Mr. Cordish is the fourth generation of his family to be involved in development. His father, David, still logs 90 hours a week, while Blake and two brothers (John and Reed), all vice-presidents, gather every Sunday morning at David’s house for a basketball game and business breakfast.
While grim economic realities often derail or downsize other grandiose visions, Woodbine’s dream has gone the other way, adding residential housing and commercial offices to the original concept. The more the company dug into the opportunities, Mr. Cordish said in a recent interview, “the more it became apparent what the potential was.” The planned expansion, he insists, constitutes a de facto validation that this project is a winner, because “tenants are analyzing the same things and betting along with you.”
To those critical of the city’s liberal tax concessions, Mr. Cordish says that such trade-offs – needed to help subsidize infrastructure costs – are common practice in the United States. “Remember,” he says, “we will still be generating hundreds of millions in new taxes for the public sector. All we’re doing is taking a declining percentage of future taxes and using them to help pay for roads, sewers, etc. The entire risk is with the private sector. If the taxes aren’t there, we don’t get them.”
And few question WEG’s need to do something with the site. Although the addition of slot machines in 2000 has buttressed Woodbine’s revenue base, maintaining the status quo was not an option. North America’s horse-racing industry is in the throes of a long-term decline and Internet gaming, legal and otherwise, poses a growing threat to its casino revenues.
Six years ago, concluding that its undeveloped land holdings (275 hectares) constituted its best opportunity to diversify, WEG started looking for a development partner.
If pedigree counts, Woodbine may have found the right one. Over the past three decades, the Cordish Companies have built comparable urban entertainment districts in Baltimore, Kansas City, Louisville, Houston, Tampa and Hollywood, Fla. All of them, says Mr. Cordish, have become potent engines of job-creation and tax-generation. New ones are now on the drawing board for Philadelphia, San Francisco (on the Bay), St. Louis and Richmond, Va.
When the Cordish Companies first started to build in their headquarters city, Baltimore’s inner harbour was a disaster zone of abandoned warehouses and rotting wharves. Today, its Power Plant Live draws 18 million visitors a year.
The story is much the same in Kansas City, says Graham Smith, a local urban planner. There, a wasteland of parking lots and low-value real estate assets has become a multi-block regional tourist destination – even without the pro sports franchise the city is hoping to land. “Other developers people tried for 25 years,” says Mr. Smith. “What Cordish has is a recipe that works – resources, connections, capital, relationships. And the spin-off effects in areas around the development have also benefited.”
Can a single mega-development in the boonies help repair a broken community and become a regional tourism hot spot? Mr. Cordish is convinced that if you build it right, they will come. “Over 10 or 20 years, tenants will come and go,” he says. “So you have to create a genuine experience, a sense of place. That’s what people are driven by, not just cool restaurants.”
But will tourists flock to northern Mississauga, even when the Arctic winds are howling? Mr. Cordish laughs. With the ice rinks and raging bonfires, “winter,” he predicts, “will be our biggest season.”