The corporation that oversees government-sanctioned gambling in Ontario is pushing for a major expansion, including a casino in Toronto, more public access to slot machines and lottery tickets, and greater private involvement in the industry.
The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. believes its plan to "modernize" gambling could, within five years, add $1.3-billion to the $2-billion it contributes to Ontario's annual revenues.
"This new revenue will help us balance the budget," provincial Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, who backs the plan, said Monday.
OLG chairman Paul Godfrey said that about 40 per cent of the projected new money would be expected to come from a casino in the Greater Toronto Area. Ontario Place has been raised as a possible site, but OLG executives stressed that no discussions have begun, noting that bids will be assessed on their business cases and that municipal approval is crucial.
Councillor Doug Ford, Toronto mayor Rob Ford's brother and closest adviser, is an enthusiastic proponent of opening a casino in the city.
The chair of the city's economic development committee believes council would get on board too.
"I think the positives would outweigh the minuses, and for those reasons, I think that you'd find council would support the development of a casino in the Toronto area," said Michael Thompson, who predicted Toronto would seek a significant share of the casino's revenue in exchange for its support.
But the prospect of more money for Toronto won't sway opponents like Adam Vaughan, the councillor whose ward abuts Ontario Place.
"[Casinos]take away the ability of a local operator to compete," Mr. Vaughan said, referring to downtown restaurants and shops. "Then you're left with the social problems that mount around a casino location, everything from suicide to prostitution to a lot of break and enters."
In an OLG report made public on Monday, the corporation also argues for much greater public access to gambling products and games. They pledge to "broaden the player base by becoming more appealing – not increasing the amount that current customers gamble."
While Mr. Godfrey acknowledged that adding a casino in the Toronto area would cause some "erosion" from facilities elsewhere in the province, the plan assumes a pent-up demand among Ontarians and tourists that can be tapped with more convenient facilities.
But there is a certain wariness in border towns whose casinos are already suffering from reduced cross-border traffic.
"No question, a casino in Toronto would have a very major effect on all other casinos," said Niagara Falls mayor Jim Diodati, who is calling for more study on the effects of expansion. "If you're just going to cut the pie into smaller pieces, that's not going to benefit anyone."
Windsor's chief financial officer, Onorio Colucci, said falling casino revenues had slashed in half the $13-million once paid to the city in property tax. "I would certainly be concerned about anything that impacts the substantial cash inflows that we get from the OLG facilities," he said.
Among the other changes proposed in the report, the OLG wants lottery tickets to be more easily available at retail outlets, noting that many Canadians do not visit convenience stores, and slot-machine facilities to be installed outside of racetracks. The latter proposal was slammed by Sue Leslie, president of the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association, who said it would "throw 60,000 Ontarians out of work."
Under the plan, the current total of 27 gambling sites would be increased to 29, although no decisions have been made on which facilities might close or where new ones might be built.
The opposition New Democrats, who called the proposed changes an attempt to balance the budget on the backs of desperate families.
"The Finance Minister and the Premier are gambling addicts," NDP MPP Rosario Marchese said. "In my view, the majority of families will lose."
He pledged to fight the possibility of a casino in Toronto.
The corporation also wants to extend privatization, increasing the number of industry workers employed by the private sector to "almost 100 per cent" from 60 per cent.
"The process to get to that is going to be a transparent process, a tender if you will, for the ability to operate the various facilities we have today that are not currently private-sector operated," explained OLG chief executive Rod Phillips.
When asked about wage, benefits or job-security protections for current employees, he said the details remain to be sorted out.
"The process will be developed over the months ahead," Mr. Phillips said. "But these employees are very valuable, they're very effective at their jobs. And as I said, they have an [Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario]registration, which is a highly valuable piece of registration to have, because you have to have that registration to work in a gaming facility. So I suspect that the vast majority of these employees will [continue]working."
Under the proposed shift, OLG would continue to maintain oversight of gambling operations run by the private sector.
With a report from Kelly Grant