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Canada Ontario government announces agreement to keep controversial casino in Ajax Downs

Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government has announced a deal to allow two casinos just seven kilometres apart in a bid to satisfy two municipalities east of Toronto that have waged a long and bitter fight over the future of gambling in the region.

The province revealed on Tuesday that an agreement-in-principle has been reached to keep open the casino at Ajax Downs, which required a redrawing of the rules by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. The Ajax casino would compete with a planned megacasino complex in neighbouring Pickering.

“People sometimes like to have different entertainment choices. And so why couldn’t there be two facilities operating and run by the same operator?” said Rod Phillips, who is the MPP for Ajax and Environment Minister.

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Both casinos will be operated by Vancouver-based Great Canadian Gaming Corp., which got a contract from OLG to run facilities in the Greater Toronto Area last year. Earlier this year, Great Canadian had announced it would be moving the casino at Ajax Downs to Pickering.

Mr. Phillips and Ajax Mayor Steve Parish argued there is room in the market for two casinos because they will offer different experiences. Casino Ajax will have 500 slot machines, down from the current 800, in addition to its existing quarter-horse race track. By contrast, the proposed Durham Live casino is slated to have 2,700 slots and 1,000 table games in addition to hotels and theme parks.

Mr. Parish, who has long fought for his town to keep its casino, said Tuesday’s announcement was a “very positive thing” for Ajax in terms of jobs and revenue sharing – his municipality receives an average of $7.5-million per year – in addition to supporting Ontario’s only quarter-horse racing facility, which is responsible for 1,700 jobs in Durham region.

“The bottom line for the government is maximizing revenue to the provincial government, and I would think that the government would be persuaded by the mix that gives the provincial government the maximum revenue,” he said.

Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan said he expected such a move after promises during the spring election campaign from Mr. Phillips, a former chief executive of OLG, and Mr. Ford. “There’s just so much more in the Durham Live facility, I’m not concerned at all,” he said.

Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy, the MPP for Pickering-Uxbridge, said the news is positive for the Durham region. “It’s not a competing casino, it’s just slots … which is complementary to the slots and gaming tables at the Pickering site,” he said, noting the Durham Live project is expected to create 10,000 jobs over time.

OLG rules previously permitted only one casino in the sprawling suburbs east of Toronto, including Pickering, Ajax and Whitby. The OLG, which reached the agreement-in-principle with the owners of Ajax Downs, said on Tuesday that it had “created a new gaming zone in the GTA, as permitted under existing agreements, to accommodate the retention of slot operations at Casino Ajax.”

OLG said it is satisfied that the proposed deal “is commercially viable” for Ontario. Once finalized, the deal allows the Ajax casino to remain open until 2026 with options to extend it another 12 years. Further details of the tentative deal, including whether it cost anything to save Ajax Downs, were not provided.

Mr. Phillips said the proposed agreement was OLG’s recommendation and that he did not meet with officials to discuss the matter.

The announcement to retain the Ajax casino comes after years of battles, including in court, by Ajax and Pickering over the future of a casino in the region. Both municipalities were eager to have a casino, which comes with millions in annual host city payments, jobs and other benefits.

Great Canadian Gaming did not respond to questions on Tuesday.

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