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Toronto city staff recommend more gambling options at Woodbine Racetrack

Toronto Mayor John Tory’s inner circle on council is being asked to approve the first steps that could lead to an expansion of gambling at Woodbine racetrack.

Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The expansion of gambling at Woodbine Racetrack could generate as much as $14-million a year in additional revenue for the City of Toronto, according to a report from city staff in support of the move.

The city's executive committee will meet next week to discuss more gambling options – including additional electronic games and live dealer tables – at the racetrack in the city's northwest. Ahead of that meeting, the acting city manager has released a report recommending expansion – subject to planning and health conditions.

Supporters of the expansion have touted the potential economic benefits of such a project – an assertion backed by the city staff report.

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"The OLG [Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation] estimates that expanded gaming could generate an additional $7-million to $11-million in revenues for the City," the report says, before adding that those estimates are conservative; it goes on to say expanding the racetrack could bring in an additional $14-million in hosting funds – for a total of $29.6-million a year.

The current gambling facility, which is operated by Woodbine Entertainment Group, opened in 2000 and has about 3,000 slot machines. The staff report says that, under Ontario Lottery and Gaming rules, the site could have a maximum of 5,000 slot machines and as many as 300 live dealer tables.

An Ipsos Reid poll conducted for the city found that 34 per cent of residents support expanding gambling at Woodbine, while 25 per cent oppose it. The remaining 42 per cent, meanwhile, say they have mixed feelings or don't know how they feel about the proposal.

Among the city's conditions for moving forward with the proposal is a requirement for an "integrated entertainment complex" and retail space. The city is also asking the operator to work with the city and its Medical Officer of Health – who has voiced opposition to expanding gambling – to address possible health and social risks.

Woodbine Entertainment Group released a statement Tuesday saying it was "very encouraged" by the report.

"We look forward to speaking with the Executive Committee next week and answering further questions as they make this important decision," the group said in the statement.

The idea of expanding Woodbine Racetrack was floated in the last term of council – but as part of a larger debate that included the possibility of a downtown casino. Councillors voted against that move at the time.

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Mayor John Tory has said in the past that he is open to the idea of expanding Woodbine Racetrack, but only if it could lead to jobs and economic development in the area.

He largely reiterated that position Tuesday and added that he would bring a "positive attitude" to city council for the expansion.

"I'm inclined to think it would be a good thing for the city but subject always to the fact that I see it as an important part of a much broader vision for that area," Mr. Tory said.

But a couple of councillors questioned the idea, including Paula Fletcher.

"I've not supported the economy based on casinos," she said. "I don't think that's how you build your economy. I think we have film, we have food and we have finance – three big economic leaders in the city. And we need to focus on what's making the city tick – and not get pulled aside by casinos."

Councillor Mike Layton also spoke against the expansion, saying it would take money out of the local economy rather than bring in new money.

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"This casino will essentially be taking [from] the pockets of people in Etobicoke and North York," he said.

Though the report came with a recommendation from city staff in support of expansion, Mr. Layton said he sees it as a major step toward scrapping the expansion plan, pointing to the contents of the report rather than its recommendation.

"I think this changes it from a sure bet to a very tenuous one at best, because now the facts are on the table, and the facts are this isn't going to provide all the things that everyone says it's going to provide," he said.

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