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The Globe and Mail

Woodbine location favoured for Toronto 'entertainment destination'

Ontario Lottery and gaming Corporations stock images of casinos and slots.


The operator of Toronto's Woodbine racetrack says the vast Etobicoke site is the "logical" location for a new casino and entertainment complex – an ambition that is pitting the local player against some of the biggest names in the gambling business.

Nick Eaves, head of Woodbine Entertainment Group, operators of the racetrack, said his group is eager to make the suburban site that is also home to 3,000 slots the choice for proposed expansion by the province's gaming agency.

"There's a lot of space in the existing facility and there is lots of land on which to build," Mr. Eaves said. "I think that it's clear that Woodbine is the logical place to take advantage of any expansion."

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However, Bill Rutsey, chief executive officer of the Canadian Gaming Association, estimates only a few firms worldwide have the "experience and the muscle" to spearhead the kind of massive development the province envisions. "There aren't a lot of companies that are capable of delivering that kind of full, grand, entertainment product," he said, adding that Woodbine does not "do all the pieces" to deliver that kind of development.

Two new opinion polls, one commissioned by Woodbine Entertainment, show the Etobicoke location is among the sites Toronto residents favour for a casino.

An online poll of 810 Toronto residents done in March for the Canadian Gaming Association found 54 per cent of respondents favoured a casino, with Woodbine, Ontario Place and Exhibition Place attracting the most support. The telephone poll of 500 residents done for Woodbine found 51 per cent supported a casino at Woodbine, with the greatest support in Etobicoke.

While the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. last month announced plans for a casino in Toronto, no location has been selected and the province is clear it will not force a casino on the city.

If Woodbine is to succeed in its bid for the new facility, it will need to take on some major U.S. competition. Operators including MGM Resorts International are showing interest in building a multibillion-dollar complex in Toronto. Finance Minister Dwight Duncan has made it clear the province's vision is for an "entertainment destination," that includes hotels, restaurants and other attractions that go beyond slot machines and blackjack tables.

Talk of a new casino on racetrack property also raises questions about the existing Woodbine Live development plans. That deal, between Woodbine and Baltimore-based The Cordish Co., came with tax breaks from the city and includes zoning that prohibits a casino, councillor Janet Davis said.

"If Woodbine Entertainment Group and Cordish now expect that they are going to get tax incentives and support for a development that includes a casino, it's time we got that out on the table now," she said.

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Ms. Davis has submitted a formal inquiry on the development's progress that is expected next month. In the meantime, she said staff have told her there have been no discussions with the developer since last summer.

The U.S. developer responded to a request for information with a written statement. "The Cordish Companies has an unparalleled record of developing first class casino/entertainment complexes, and Toronto, as one of the great cities in the world, lends itself to this kind of development," it said.

Local councillor Doug Ford has voiced support for expanding the Woodbine location with the addition of gaming tables. His brother, Mayor Rob Ford, has used Woodbine Live as an example of his ability to draw business to his former ward of Etobicoke North.

"These things are fluid," Mr. Eaves said when asked how the Woodbine Live plans, which include residential, entertainment and retail development, would fit with a proposed casino. "There is a lot of land to be used for all kinds of purposes."

A casino at Woodbine, Mr. Eaves said, could be an anchor for a range of activities, including those proposed by Woodbine Live.

"One of the great benefits we have is complete flexibility," he said. "We own 680 acres of land. It is an existing racing and gaming operation and we are equipped to respond in whatever way we and OLG think best meets the market demand."

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Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Canadian Gaming Association as the Canadian Gambling Association. This version has been corrected.

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