Premier Doug Ford’s plan to remake Toronto’s waterfront has sparked interest in the gambling industry that a downtown casino could be back on the table as part of a redevelopment of Ontario Place.
Mr. Ford, who was vocal about his support for a casino at the prime location during his time as a city councillor, has privately mused about reviving the idea, according to two industry insiders. The long-neglected, provincially owned theme park was mothballed several years ago.
However, there have been no formal discussions with the province’s private gambling partners about an additional Toronto casino, which would need to overcome significant hurdles to proceed.
Toronto Mayor John Tory is opposed to any notion of a downtown casino and city council voted overwhelmingly against the idea in 2013.
In addition, to open a casino at Ontario Place, insiders say the provincial government would have to strike deals with gambling companies that operate facilities elsewhere in Ontario and would face increased competition from a new rival.
As well, the consortium that runs three gambling facilities in the Greater Toronto Area has an effective veto on casino development in the region under the terms of its contact with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. (OLG), according to sources in the gambling industry.
Mr. Ford announced last month the province would revitalize Ontario Place in conjunction with the City of Toronto, which owns the nearby Canadian National Exhibition grounds, to “make it the most spectacular destination anywhere in North America to visit.”
The sprawling waterfront area has long been eyed as a potential site for a gambling complex. Ontario Place was mostly shut down amid dwindling attendance and government austerity in 2012.
Since Mr. Ford’s announcement, he and his government have not provided any concrete details of their plans, but sources say the Premier is taking a personal interest in the file.
Asked if Mr. Ford is pursuing the possibility of a waterfront casino, spokesman Simon Jefferies said: “We will have more to say about the Toronto waterfront and Ontario Place in the future.”
When Mr. Ford was a Toronto city councillor, under late brother Rob Ford as mayor, he favoured a waterfront gambling complex and pushed a plan to install a Ferris wheel and a monorail. The plan did not go forward.
“I knew this was on his wish list and had been for some time,” Jim Diodati, mayor of Niagara Falls, said in an interview on Tuesday. “If the Premier decides he wants a casino, he’s going to get a casino.”
The Ontario government has not contacted Great Canadian Gaming Corp., which was awarded a contract to operate three casinos in the Toronto area a year ago, to revisit the terms of the deal or discuss the possibility of opening a casino at Ontario Place, according to investment banking sources who work with the company.
One of the gambling industry source said Great Canadian Gaming could build a new casino at an unspecified location in the city as part of the contract, which has not been made public. But the idea would first need to be approved by Toronto City Council, the source said.
If councillors were to block a downtown Toronto casino, the provincial government could turn to a rarely used provision to overrule the city, the source said. Under what’s known as a Minister’s Zoning Order, the province can control land use over the objections of a municipality.
In a statement, Great Canadian Gaming chief operating officer Terrance Doyle directed questions about the Ontario government’s plans to the OLG. He said his consortium, which includes private-equity fund Brookfield Business Partners, is focusing on expanding Casino Woodbine, including opening the Toronto area’s only live table-gambling facility last month, and plans to add more table games and slot machines later this year.
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.
Earlier this month, Connecticut-based Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment was awarded leases on two casinos in Niagara Falls and Burnaby, B.C. Gateway Casinos & Entertainment operates a string of 11 Ontario casinos. Sources in the gambling industry said both companies have the right to rework their contracts with the OLG if the province opens new casinos.
Former premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government closed most of Ontario Place in 2012 while it examined options to revitalize the once futuristic tourist attraction, including opening a casino.
Before he became mayor, Mr. Tory was tasked with overseeing a review of Ontario Place that ultimately called for a mixed-use community – and no casino.
A process launched by former premier Kathleen Wynne, who did not support a downtown casino, sought private-sector partners to redevelop the site but ran out of time and had to be mothballed as the provincial election campaign got under way earlier this year.
With reports from Andrew Willis and Justin Giovannetti