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Toronto Two GTA communities wait to see Doug Ford’s plans for Ajax Downs casino

Two Ontario municipalities fighting over the future of a casino east of Toronto are anxiously awaiting to see if premier-designate Doug Ford follows through with a campaign promise to make both of them happy.

Only weeks before the election won by Mr. Ford’s Progressive Conservatives, Great Canadian Gaming Corp. announced that it would be moving its casino at Ajax Downs to neighbouring Pickering. Mr. Ford and his star candidate in Ajax, Rod Phillips, said at the time that they would review the decision and strike a deal to satisfy both communities if elected.

“We’re going to work something out that is going to be positive for Ajax and Pickering,” Mr. Ford told reporters in April. “At the end of the day they’re both going to be happy.”

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The showdown between the two municipalities is one of the first public tests of Ontario’s increasingly privatized gambling system. The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. has been selling off its gambling assets since 2014. The OLG handed control of gambling in the Greater Toronto Area to Vancouver-based Great Canadian last summer in a sale intended to spark a casino boom around the province’s largest city. Along with Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack, the company won control of Ajax Downs and the Great Blue Heron Casino in Port Perry.

A spokesman for Mr. Ford said on Tuesday that the incoming government wasn’t yet ready to detail how it will deal with the situation. Along with the two clashing communities, the new government’s decision will need to balance internal demands after the party won both Mr. Phillips’ seat in Ajax and the neighbouring Pickering-Uxbridge seat with businessman Peter Bethlenfalvy. Both of the newly elected MPPs are considered front-runners for the coveted job of finance minister.

For Ajax, the decision would mean the loss of annual gambling royalties and an uncertain future for its decades-old horse track. Pickering says it would stand to gain 10,000 new jobs from the construction of an entertainment complex that would include the new casino.

Steve Parish, who will step down in November after nearly 23 years as mayor of Ajax, said neither the OLG nor Great Canadian sought any information from Ajax or the racetrack’s landlord before announcing the move. He also said that nearly three years of requests to speak with the outgoing Liberal government about the future of the Ajax casino were ignored.

“We were kept completely in the dark. We thought that no change would be allowed without the Ministry of Finance analyzing the situation in a fair and transparent way. That never happened,” said Mr. Parish. “We’re not prepared to just let this go. We’re not going away. We feel like we were the victims of a flawed process and we won’t accept that.”

He said he has received assurances from Mr. Phillips, the area’s new MPP and the former head of OLG, that the Tories will keep their campaign promise to Ajax. Mr. Phillips declined to comment for this story.

A final decision won’t be as simple as granting both municipalities a casino. The OLG has split Ontario into a number of regions where a single casino is given a monopoly. The sprawling suburbs east of Toronto, including Pickering, Ajax and Oshawa, are one such region.

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Pickering was not consulted by Great Canadian before it announced plans to move the casino to a vacant field on the city’s eastern limit, according to Mayor Dave Ryan.

“Premier-designate Ford is a proven businessperson and he has pledged to operate the province like a business. We trust his sincerity, and as such, we are optimistic that he will not choose to reverse a sound and fair business decision for political reasons,” Mr. Ryan said in a statement.

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