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MGM sells massive casino plan with a promise of 10,000 jobs

Renderings of MGM’s initial plans for a casino at Exhibition Place in Toronto.

A spruced-up midway on the waterfront, free admission to the CNE, underground parking, expanded transit service and 10,000 well-paying jobs are part of the perks being dangled to Toronto by the consortium that wants to put a casino resort at Exhibition Place.

MGM Resorts and its Canadian development partner, Cadillac Fairview, have taken the wraps off their plans to radically renovate the city's western waterfront with a $3-billion to $4-billion investment that envisions a 1,200-room hotel, shopping mall and casino on what are now the parking lots that house the CNE midway each August. The plans would shift the rides to the northern edge of Ontario Place, between Lakeshore Boulevard and the water. They also foresee additions to the existing soccer stadium and convention space, an enlarged GO station with connecting tunnels and expanded streetcar service, although no deals have been reached with any of the organizations that control those facilities and services.

Details of the proposal come as councillors prepare to vote as early as next month on whether they want a casino downtown. Mayor Rob Ford's executive committee will discuss casinos this month, and a report by the city manager is expected next week. That analysis, as well as any new numbers from the province on what the city can expect to make from hosting a new casino, will provide the backdrop for the coming debate. The province has said it will not locate a casino in Toronto without a green light from the city.

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In the run-up to that debate, MGM and its Canadian pension-fund partner have put on a lobbying blitz, hosting 13 councillors, the mayor and key decision makers for individual briefings at a hospitality suite in a downtown hotel. They used the same hotel to show the press a model and drawings of their plans Wednesday, saying the development would be a catalyst for revitalizing the area.

While they handed out drawings, they refused to make public their model for the site, which included colour-coded pieces to show new transit lines and bike trails as well as bridges and tunnels, saying it was "educational" only and did not reflect what a future bid might look like.

The model, executives said, was meant to illustrate that a casino resort could co-exist with the other users of the city-owned site – especially the CNE.

"What changes is the look, the feel, the configuration becomes much newer, much fresher, frankly I think much more inviting," said MGM spokesman Alan Feldman about the proposed midway changes. "There may be people who miss going to a parking lot to get a hot dog, and if they miss that, I guess that won't satisfy them."

One person not satisfied is CNE president Brian Ashton, who got a peek at the plan last week. "They are going to crush us with a casino," he predicted Wednesday.

Mr. Feldman revealed MGM has offered to give the CNE "several thousand dollars" annually for a decade, compensation for shutting the fair's existing casino and allowing it to eliminate admission charges.

Mr. Ashton said it is not enough to get his support. "I don't want to be roadkill, even if they pay me for the privilege," he said.

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Casino opponents also questioned the way the plans were rolled out to selected individuals. Councillor Joe Mihevc described the private briefings as a "classic strategy of divide and conquer," and called the drawings "casino porn."

Councillor Mike Layton, a casino critic who represents the ward that includes Exhibition Place, waited in the hotel hallway to talk to reporters, saying he was barred from the event.

"It's them painting the prettiest possible picture of something that is just going to take money out of our pockets," he said, questioning MGM's claims that the development will create up to 10,000 permanent, mostly unionized jobs.

Mr. Layton said he has received 1,000 e-mails from residents opposing a casino. "It's going to be the people of Toronto, not executives in suites at this hotel that are going to decide," he said.

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