The company behind some of Las Vegas's best-known gambling destinations – including Bellagio, Luxor, Mandalay Bay and The Mirage – has begun lobbying to build its first Canadian casino in Toronto.
MGM Resorts International's development staff visited Toronto recently and the entertainment behemoth has hired a local firm, Sussex Strategy Group, to make its case at city hall. Two of its associates had informal conversations about a casino with Mayor Rob Ford's staff, a dozen councillors and political aides during last week's council meeting. MGM is exploring a $2 billion-to-$6 billion investment in the city, one that could go well beyond slot machines and roulette wheels to include hotels, restaurants, spas and convention facilities.
"It's an amazing market, it's an amazing city," Alan Feldman, MGM's senior vice-president of public affairs, said in an interview from Japan Monday. "We'd be prepared to invest an awful lot in the development of the concept."
MGM's inquiries are in the very early stages, Mr. Feldman said. The company isn't much interested in a small project, such as adding tables to the slots at the Woodbine racetrack.
But if the province and city are interested in a sprawling "integrated resort" where gambling facilities make up as little as 10 per cent of the space, then MGM is very interested in Toronto.
"This is really an issue of whether the government sees this (gambling) as a means to a larger end or an end unto itself," Mr. Feldman said.
Sussex signed up to lobby on MGM's behalf April 4, according to records filed with Toronto's lobbyist registrar.
A pair of casino-related motions during last week's council meeting were dispatched to committees. Councillors are divided on whether to embrace a glitzy new gaming facility.
"We know the big boys are coming to town," Councillor Doug Ford, the mayor's brother, said Monday, when told MGM had quietly begun a campaign to sway councillors.
It was the first he'd heard of MGM's nascent lobbying efforts. The councillor predicted on the weekend radio show he co-hosts with the mayor that "major players," including MGM, Caesars and Wynn would soon be knocking on Toronto's door.
At the opening of the new Trump International Hotel & Tower, Mayor Rob Ford said he spoke with the celebrity real-estate developer about the possibility of future projects in the city, but would not say if a casino was part of that talk.
"We had a little bit of a conversation," the mayor said, before racing out a back door away from the press.
The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. revealed last month that it plans to open a casino in the Greater Toronto Area as part of a sweeping overhaul of the province's gaming industry.
A location hasn't been selected yet, and the Premier has made it clear his government won't force a gaming complex on an unwilling city.
But Finance Minister Dwight Duncan has warned that if Toronto says no, it risks losing 4,000 jobs and a "golden mile" of luxury shops and restaurants that would spring up around a provincially run gaming complex, especially if it were situated on the waterfront.
An MGM casino would fit neatly with Mr. Duncan's vision of a grand gambling destination on the lake.
The company owns and operates 15 opulent hotel-casinos in Nevada, Mississippi and Michigan and has a 50 per cent stake in four other properties in Nevada, Illinois and Macau. MGM even has pop-culture resonance – three of its properties were robbed by George Clooney and Brad Pitt in the 2001 movie, Ocean's Eleven.
Ontario Place has been floated as an ideal location for the casino. "I think Ontario Place would make a superb site," Mr. Feldman said, adding his company is eyeing other sites as well.
One of Sussex's lobbyists spoke briefly to Mike Layton, the councillor whose ward includes the shuttered amusement park, at last week's council session and later reported the meeting to the registry.
"Am I surprised they're trying to get ahead of the game?" Mr. Layton said of MGM. "No. The casino is the only one who wins here. The house always wins."
Mr. Layton is dead set against a casino at Ontario Place. Concerned about a sea of parking lots, traffic tie-ups and the social ills that could accompany a casino, he moved a motion at last week's council meeting that would have barred a casino from the site.
That motion, along with another asking that no casino be approved without a referendum, was sent to committee.
Mr. Layton is far from the only councillor to express reservations about a Toronto casino.
Even Councillor Ford said his support is contingent on the project being done right.
"I'm not in favour of casinos," he said, "unless there's proper consultation, proper infrastructure, proper transit and proper planning."
Councillor Mark Grimes – the chair of Exhibition Place, another potential casino site – said council should at least hear out players like MGM before folding its hand and leaving the table.
"I think we'd be stupid to say no until we see what's coming forward," he said.
With a report from Elizabeth Church