Casinos redux


Seniors and slotsFirst let’s clarify the terms. A “casino” was never really in the discussion, although just about everyone used that term. What the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. (OLG) offered was a “gaming facility” as they euphemistically called it. A gambling joint, others said.

It was to be a warehouse-like, windowless building with up to 300 slot machines. No keno, no gaming tables for poker or blackjack, no roulette. Up to (and maybe less than) 300 slot machines. No guarantees on the number, just up to 300.

The OLG decides how many: not the town, not the operator. The town can’t even comment on who the operator will be. That decision is in the OLG’s hands.*

Locals also referred to it s a “slot barn,” underscoring its aesthetic deficits. Casino, however, stuck as the word for general palaver.

The OLG made an enthusiastic pitch to every municipality in its artificially-created and somewhat illogically-determined  “zone seven.” Do you want to be a host, they asked, assuming a civic stampede to their door. They held out the promise of money. Who doesn’t want money? It helps grease the wheels of municipal progress.

Free money. Pours right into your coffers. No strings attached… as long as you didn’t ask too many questions. Like those uncomfortable ones about gambling addiction, mental health services and seniors wedded to machines so long they had to wear diapers because they wouldn’t get up from their stools. Let’s not dwell on the problem gamblers, they said. Look at the upside.

Sure, stats show people don’t visit casinos and then spend their winnings downtown, at the local mall, attending theatre or other cultural events. They don’t pump their winnings back into the local economy. They stay in the casino until their money runs out. Then they go home. Impact on local business: pretty much zilch.

And, of course, most folk don’t win. That’s the whole point. So their money goes into the slot machines and stays there. Until the OLG comes to collect it, of course.

But, towns were told, you can take that free money from the OLG and pump it into other things. Tart yourself up to attract the other tourists who don’t want to pour money into computerized machines as a form of entertainment. Maybe build another addiction counselling service centre.

Free money. Oodles of it, falling from the heavens. Untold wealth.

Well, maybe not untold. In two public meetings, after direct questions about the cash, the OLG reps finally admitted that a municipality might get “between one and two million” dollars a year. Might. No promises.

Didn’t stop the enthusiasts from spinning that into three, even five million dollars. And more. Emails flew suggesting ten. Hundreds of jobs. Suitcases full of tax money in municipal coffers. A golden era of prosperity. The OLG reps just smiled.

One, maybe two million: not exactly the Midas touch, but free, so don’t complain. it’s better than nothing.

At least until the OLG changed its mind, changed the deal, closed up shop and took a different strategic direction. Which they had just done to the horse racing industry (the fallout from which forced the beleaguered Liberals to backpedal and try for remediation). Those municipalities grown to depend on this free money suddenly faced the well drying up as the OLG spread its gambling across the province, instead of keeping it in racetracks and a few casinos.

No guarantees that five, ten years down the road they wouldn’t decide little slot barns weren’t worth the effort and close them all up.

All this, as well as the arguments in favour of such a facility, your council took in its course and debated the question the OLG posed: do we want one in Collingwood?

The answer: no.

Actually we said it twice.

First, in late 2012 when we voted against hosting the so-called casino here, then several months later when it was dragged back to the table, we resoundingly decided we didn’t want one in the region at all.**

But we did say something more.

In a post-no-vote presentation from a developer and a casino lobbyist (working for but not acting on behalf of or speaking for the MGM casino corporation), we were told that someone, somewhere, sometime might be interested in building something spiffy here. Something grand. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of grand: a destination resort. Complete with a convention centre, entertainment centre, spa, 800-1,000 jobs.

And maybe just a little “boutique casino” to help pay the bills.

Would we be willing to entertain a proposal for such a development? Give Blue a run for its money?

Of course we would. Jobs, growth, economic development, taxes, advertising, development charges, marketing, spinoff and collateral growth, and an increase in local business. Lots of longterm potential there. Not just a slot barn, but a fully-outfitted destination resort.

Sure, just send us your proposal, we said.

Which of course, we never received.

I wasn’t surprised.

First of all, the OLG wasn’t interested in offering the region more than a slot barn. Take it or leave it was the implicit message as I understand the subsequent discussion with staff. And we had voted to leave it.

Plus the OLG has just gone through a major catharsis. Its chair and most of the board resigned after the election of a new premier who had openly voiced concerns about the OLG’s direction previously. Clearly the OLG and the government were at loggerheads.

Popular opinion seems to be against their latest strategic plan to generate an additional >50% revenue from gambling. Lots of municipalities turned down their offer. Maybe Ontarians didn’t really believe the money that fell from the OLG-coloured sky was really free. The OLG wasn’t the goose laying golden eggs after all.

Second – and I said this at the time – where would you build something that big, that spectacular, that busy?

Destination resorts need location and space. That suggests a big waterfront property (how attractive would it be to visitors to be located in an industrial park or behind a mall?) zoned and serviced for such a facility. The parking requirements alone make it difficult to find a suitable property here (How many acres of parking does the 5,000-seat music and entertainment centre itself require? Add in a convention centre, resort, spa, hotel… and a casino!)

And think of the traffic. First Street busy enough for you now? Imagine doubling or tripling the volume of traffic, at least for conferences and shows. Overflows would flood the side streets. Could our infrastructure handle it?

Location, location, location is everything in business. We don’t have a suitable location for something of this scale. At least right now.

Third, consider the business model. A resort of this scale needs a lot of income and traffic. A casino would help make ends meet, but they need to keep rooms full, theatre and convention seats full, too. We don’t currently have enough visitors to make it viable.

Might happen. Build it and they will come, and all that. But at first it would be slow, and empty a lot of the time. Might take years to achieve stability. Could a boutique casino keep it afloat in the shoulder seasons? Keep the jobs? Pay the bills, the taxes?

I really don’t know the answer, but my suspicion is no. An investment of this scale would have to be pretty carefully managed and have lots of reserve cash for the thin days.

Anyway, due diligence (and common sense) meant saying yes, we will consider any proposal of substance. We owe it to our residents and ratepayers to cogitate mightily on a substantive offer of jobs, growth, taxes and the ilk. You want to spend a few hundred million dollars in our town? Come on in and talk with us. Never let it be said that Collingwood is closed for business.***

We never promised to approve anything, just to be open to a proposal.

Which, as I said, we never received. Nor did we received the OLG’s blessing for a revamped gambling joint that would suit this model. So it may be moot. But if we do get one, we will  give it the attention it deserves.

No one suggested reopening the debate on a slot barn. We aren’t pursuing anything, just waiting patiently for someone to give us a proposal for a destination resort which could include a casino component.

Now you know. So when you see the statement, “Despite voting against a gambling facility in Collingwood in 2012, current Council is reopening the issue and pursuing a casino,” you know that’s not the whole truth.

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* We didn’t ask for this. We didn’t ask to have our community bifurcated by this polarizing debate. No municipality did. The OLG dropped its new strategic plan on the province without any prior public input, said they were going to put a gaming facility in the region, then rode into town with their dog-and-pony show hosting public meetings and telling us to make a decision within their deadline period.

** I clearly have no interest in hosting the proposed slot barn. I have been critical of the OLG and its autocratic efforts to push gambling down our throats. But I have no animosity towards any operators. They’re just doing their business. I will listen to them respectfully.

*** We would be – rightly – criticized for not exploring all the economic opportunities such a proposal would come with. But first we need a proposal to explore.