Ontario’s Finance Minister says the provincial government is open to having a casino in downtown Toronto, but any decision will be made in consultation with the city as part of a larger waterfront redevelopment.
Vic Fedeli’s comments are the first public signal that Premier Doug Ford’s government is considering a gambling complex as part of a plan to revitalize Ontario Place, the provincially owned waterfront theme park that was mothballed several years ago.
Asked if he wanted a casino, Mr. Fedeli said: “I don’t open the door and I don’t close the door. There has been a spike of interest in it, and so you have to have these kinds of discussions.”
The Globe and Mail reported on Thursday that the Premier, who supported a waterfront casino when he was a Toronto city councillor, has privately mused about reviving the idea. Mr. Ford’s Ontario Place redevelopment announcement last month sparked speculation in the gambling industry that a downtown casino could be back on the table.
Mayor John Tory opposes having a casino in the city’s core and a previous city council rejected the idea in 2013.
“Toronto does not need and I don’t think should have a downtown or waterfront casino. We have lots of gambling elsewhere in the city,” Mr. Tory told reporters on Thursday.
News that the province is open to a casino comes during the campaign for next month’s municipal election, which will elect fewer city councillors and could remake the political landscape.
Mr. Fedeli, who said Mr. Ford had not raised the casino issue with him, said the provincial government would discuss the possibility of a waterfront facility with the City of Toronto and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. (OLG)
Asked who would decide, Mr. Fedeli said: “We’re going to continue discussing things together and see what direction it takes.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the Official Opposition would not support a waterfront casino.
“I don’t think that’s the right use for Ontario Place, a place that is supposed to be for families and all Ontarians to enjoy,” she told reporters at Queen’s Park on Thursday.
The government’s openness to the notion caught some people in the gambling industry off guard. There have been no formal discussions with the province’s private-sector partners about an additional Toronto casino, an idea that would face significant hurdles.
To open a casino at Ontario Place, gambling industry sources say, the Ford government would have to negotiate deals with companies that operate facilities elsewhere in the province that could be affected.
A partnership between Great Canadian Gaming Corp. and private-equity fund Brookfield Business Partners got a contract to run three facilities in the Greater Toronto Area a year ago. It has an effective veto on casino development in the region under its contract with the OLG, according to sources in the gambling industry.
Great Canadian could build a new casino at an unspecified location in the city as part of the contract, which has not been made public, according to an industry source. The company had not been contacted about the possibility of a casino at Ontario Place, according to a banking source.
City council would have to approve any proposal to add a casino in Toronto. If it blocked a plan, the provincial government could overrule the vote with a rarely used provision known as a Minister’s Zoning Order.
Great Canadian declined comment, saying it is focused on expanding Casino Woodbine. The OLG also said it is working with the consortium on Casino Woodbine.
“OLG works continuously with the government to maximize the long term returns and the value of the GTA bundle,” spokesman Tony Bitonti said by e-mail.
Mr. Ford announced last month he plans to remake Ontario Place in conjunction with the city, which owns the nearby grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition, turning the sprawling area into “the most spectacular destination anywhere in North America.” Most of the theme park was closed in 2012 amid dwindling attendance and government belt-tightening. Mr. Ford has not provided details of his plans.
The gambling industry has long eyed the prime stretch of land as a potential site for a casino.
The OLG, a provincial agency, sold long-term leases to operate most of the province’s casinos to several private companies over the past few years as part of its modernization plan.
Before he became mayor, Mr. Tory oversaw a review of Ontario Place that called for a mixed-use community without a casino.