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Ontario mulls cashing in with a new Toronto casino

Blackjack at the River Rock Casino in Richmond, B.C. June 11, 2009.

John Lehmann/Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/Globe and Mail

Ontario's lottery corporation is pushing for a casino in Canada's largest city, a move that would make downtown Toronto home to the country's most lucrative gaming licence.

Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. is a key source of revenue for the province – in fiscal 2011, the agency contributed $1.9-billion to its coffers. But this proposal comes at a time of great economic uncertainty for Ontario. With the province in deficit, the government is under mounting pressure to find new sources of revenue and cut program spending.

Councillor Doug Ford, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's brother and closest adviser, said the administration would support a casino as long as the public is behind it.

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"If it would create jobs and bring tourists, the answer is yes, and if we could get a piece of the pie it would go toward transit," Mr. Ford said. "We need to build subways."



It would ultimately be up to the provincial government to decide whether Toronto is ready for its first casino. Venues for blackjack and slot machines in major metropolitan regions have proven to be controversial and have prompted fears of gambling addiction and other social problems.

But casinos are attractive to governments because they generate revenue, create jobs and boost tourism.

"It's not an easy decision," said Michael Thompson, chair of Toronto's economic development committee. "If done properly it could certainly be an opportunity to create economic prosperity, but it also can create some economic despair as well, and I don't know how you balance that."

Sources said the timing for a new casino is ideal because governments often turn to gaming revenues during times of economic hardship. Ontario opened its first casinos during the recession in the early 1990s, when former NDP premier Bob Rae was in power.

Provincial sources say there have been discussions within the McGuinty government about how a casino in Toronto would help slay the deficit. A provincial government source said there has to be a casino in the city to help the government achieve its target of erasing the deficit by fiscal 2017-18.

But a government official said the province does not plan on making a decision until it receives a report from the lottery corporation, expected in March.

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"It's all just speculation, because we haven't been presented with a proposal," a government official said.

The corporation is preparing a review of its gaming operations in a bid to come up with new sources of revenue. Business has declined in some of its casinos, particularly those in the border cities of Niagara Falls and Windsor, where there is less cross-border traffic from the United States. The agency plans to recommend the Toronto casino as part of that review, according to sources.

Mr. Thompson said the grounds of Ontario Place or the city-owned CNE have long been eyed as a potential site for a casino. "That has always been the spot," he said.

A report from a blue-ribbon panel of business and labour leaders, endorsed by council last year, said a casino would be a way to generate revenue without raising taxes, would increase tourism and create well-paying jobs. It suggested revenue could be used to reduce debt, invest in infrastructure and improve social services.

A source said it makes sense to do a deal involving the mayor of Toronto and Ontario Place.

"You have Rob and [his brother]Doug Ford who love to make deals. And the province has a washed-up development called Ontario Place. Everybody thinks it just makes sense to marry the two."

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About the Authors

Karen Howlett is a national reporter based in Toronto. She returned to the newsroom in 2013 after covering Ontario politics at The Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau for seven years. Prior to that, she worked in the paper’s Vancouver bureau and in The Report on Business, where she covered a variety of beats, including financial services and securities regulation. More

Toronto City Hall bureau chief

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