Saturday, February 4, 2012

Better odds for Toronto casino

TORONTO - Every day the story is the same.

Scores of buses full of Toronto gamblers leave the city at all hours in search of a little casino action and somewhere to place their bets.

If a growing number of boosters have their way, it may soon be a very short trip indeed. You can bet on it.

Increasing support within the city - and an acceptance at the provincial government level that the gambling market is changing - dramatically increases the odds that Toronto will have a casino to call its own.

“For the first time in, I would argue, well over a decade, the basis upon which gambling was developed in Ontario, the foundation, fundamentally changed,” a senior provincial government source told Sun Media. “We no longer have a monopoly and people aren’t travelling as much.”

Of the gambling venues, the source said, the government hasn’t made any decisions but is now asking, “Are they in the right location?”

Better serving homegrown gamblers, rather than relying heavily on border-phobic American tourists, is the new game plan in Ontario.

And with six million residents, all eyes have turned to the Greater Toronto Area.

“Toronto deserves a world-class casino,” Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti said.

In fact, he would like to see two casinos in the city - a Las Vegas-style showpiece at a revitalized Ontario Place and another casino at the Woodbine Racetrack in Etobicoke.

The anti-casino mood at Toronto Council has shifted as local politicians look for new ways to attract tourists and revenue, so now is the time for the province to reconsider its opposition, he said.

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) is wrapping up a land-based gambling review at the request of the provincial government.

OLG President and CEO Rod Phillips said in an interview that the report looks at all aspects of the organization to determine the best way to serve both the customers and the shareholder, the Province of Ontario.

“We were asked over a year ago by the government to prepare a report and look at how we can modernize and improve the returns to the province in a responsible manner,” Phillips said. “We’re looking at what is the right way to approach lottery and gaming in Ontario for the next three to five years based on what’s in the best interest of Ontario.”

While the results of that review are not yet public, it’s obvious the status quo is rolling snake eyes.

The OLG continues to pour close to $2 billion a year into provincial coffers, but profits have flat lined and it’s relying less and less on its “resort casinos” that border the United States, a once lucrative investment for the province.

“Over the last 10 years, the contribution to the province from our border sites has declined from $800 million to about $100 million this year,” Phillips said. “We know that some of our busiest game locations are the ones in the GTA.”

In fact, the Woodbine Racetrack slots are so hugely popular that it’s one of the most bustling gaming floors on the continent.

Still, the OLG has to consider all its casino assets before making recommendations about a possible Toronto site, Phillips said.

Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, who has the dual responsibility of overseeing the OLG and representing a Windsor community with a huge stake in this issue, has not ruled out a Toronto casino.

“When Casino Windsor was opened there were no casinos in Detroit. There are three now and there’s a casino coming to Toledo, Ohio. The border is much, much more difficult and Americans need a passport to come over,” Dwight said. “That world is changed so what does that mean going forward? How do we continue to protect those border casinos as we maximize the profit potential of OLG?”

No casino proposal is a sure bet - witness Windsor’s woes - but rolling out the green felt carpet in Toronto would likely be a successful venture, gambling expert Prof. Jeff Derevensky said.

“That would make a lot of money,” he said. “The casino industry is the fastest growing industry in the world.

“There are some social costs and I think you have to be concerned about that - I don’t think a place like Toronto could handle three casinos for instance - but one casino certainly would not be over saturation.”

The worldwide trend is dramatic, he said, with casinos popping up all over.

“The reason for that is clearly the poor economy. Governments are strapped for money around the world,” he said. “And people enjoy gambling. The vast majority of people, in fact, enjoy gambling and don’t experience any problems. Gambling’s become normalized.”

Derevensky, a founder of the International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors at McGill University, is wary of unbridled gambling expansion but says governments are in a bind.

Their citizens can go elsewhere or online to gamble.

He tells the story of the Governor of Massachusetts, who only recently agreed to open a casino in his state.

“His staff took him to the biggest casino in the area in Connecticut,” Derevensky said. “They rode around the parking lot and they looked at the cars’ licence plates. They saw Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Massachusetts, Massachusetts.”

And there’s no guarantee a community can avoid the social costs through prohibition because the travelling problem gamblers bring their troubles home with them, he said.

A casino manager in Slovenia told him the customers “all come from Italy, they lose all their money and then they go back to Italy.”

Regardless of the impact a casino would have on Toronto, there’s little doubt it would not go over well in Niagara Falls, local MPP Kim Craitor said.

“In my community - no, it would not be good,” Craitor said, noting a Toronto casino is all the buzz in town. “It’s in articles, it’s on talk shows, it’s generating a life of its own. Down here, people are already starting to react as if it has been proposed.”

Not only would it damage the prospects of both Niagara Falls’ existing casinos but it would hurt the tourism industry in the area as a whole, he said.

Craitor said he’s prepared to challenge his own Liberal government if it proceeds with a Toronto casino.

Mammoliti said the need to protect existing casinos has long been used as an excuse to deny Toronto its own version.

Places like Niagara and Windsor may have to revisit their gaming plans, but many jurisdictions have been successful with multiple casinos, he said.

“I would say it’s time for Toronto to get some help here. We’re suffering. And it’s time that everybody consider us for a change,” Mammoliti said.

As for concerns that a casino would bring social ills, only the very naive would believe this type of gambling doesn’t already occur illicitly in the city, he said.

“People like to gamble, whether we like it or not, and they will gamble.”

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