Oh God, is the Toronto Casino Debate Back Again?

Crossposted from Torontoist.
We hope you like reruns!

Oxford Properties' 2012 casino proposal. Image via Urban Toronto.

Oxford Properties’ 2012 casino proposal. Image via Urban Toronto.

Time is a flat circle. Three years after we declared a downtown casino “well and truly dead,” it’s back on the table. Here’s a quick guide to what happened last time, why we’re back here again, and what might happen.

The Story So Far

As Jamie Bradburn writes, Toronto casino proposals (and push-backs) go back to the 80s—with very little to show for it. The most recent go-round began in late 2012 when the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, looking for ways to increase revenue, raised the idea of putting a casino downtown—if Toronto gave them the go-ahead.

Casino proponents, like then-mayor Rob Ford, claimed it would be a cash cow for Toronto based on an overly optimistic estimate of how much revenue the Province would share with us. The construction industry jumped at the idea of all those new jobs; organized labour hoped that future casino employees would join their ranks. MGM, Oxford Properties and Caesars sent out gaggles of lobbyists and whipped up glossy “visions.”

Concerns about the social costs of gambling united opponents across the ideological spectrum. Casinos make a whopping 60 per cent of their revenue from the small fraction of problem gamblers. (As Kristyn Wong-Tam [Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale] pointed out, ethnic communities are disproportionately hard-hit.) Religious leaders declared their disapproval en masse.

A trifecta of former mayors—Art Eggleton, John Sewell, and David Crombie—released an open letter asking City Council to “beware the sales pitch.” They were not the only ones to question the economic viability of a casino. The final report from the City Manager also cast doubt on the project from an urban planning perspective: Torontoist wrote, “We cannot build a casino that is both an appropriate size for downtown and that will generate sufficient economic benefits.”

After months of debate and a strong grassroots opposition campaign, all these viewpoints (and more) were aired during public consultations. While feedback was mostly negative, the committee voted to support a downtown casino—plus a host of other conditions and qualifications.

Eventually, the whole thing unravelled. Premier Kathleen Wynne crushed the mayor’s hopes (and OLG chair Paul Godfrey’s insinuations) of an exceptionally high hosting fee, saying that there would be no “special deal” for Toronto. Rob Ford, by then mired in the crack video scandal, tried and failed to call off the special Council meeting. Then Council overwhelmingly rejected a downtown casino and, by a narrow margin, rejected a casino in Woodbine too.

Postscript: Paul Godfrey was quickly ousted from OLG. Last summer, Council ended up approving gaming expansion at Woodbine in principle—a site which has struggled economically for some time.

Flash Forward

Right, so here we are: August 2016. Mayor Tory, flanked by local Councillor Joe Cressy (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) and Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat, announces an ambitious plan to create a park over the rail corridor between Bathurst and Blue Jays Way. People who like parks are enthusiastic. People who like numbers are less enthused: there’s a hashtag (#RailDeckPark), a pretty rendering, no price tag, and no way to pay for it beyond Section 37 and 42 funds, which will only cover a fraction of the cost. It feels a bit like the need to negotiate with the railways for air rights is more important than downtown residents’ need for green space.

You would be excused for forgetting that Oxford Properties’s 2012 proposal to include a casino in its convention centre redevelopment also included a downtown park. It did! Here’s what we wrote then:

The proposal also mentions “a new 5.5 acre urban park connecting the core to the waterfront” but only vaguely—it is “contemplated” but nothing more—and doesn’t seem to be an essential part of the concept.

Conveniently, Oxford now says that “[if] plans to redevelop the convention centre site proceed, the deck and park space ‘would be an integral part of our conversation and our ambition.’”

Now, the New York Post reports Caesars wants to bid for a Toronto casino project, and everyone is buzzing again. Could a casino also be an integral part of Oxford’s “ambition”? Caesars…Oxford…yes? No? It’s between Woodbine and Durham, which is itself competing with…Pickering? Could the failed Woodbine Live project return?

Right now, there’s not a lot to go on. According to the lobbyist registry, Oxford and Caesars haven’t Zerg-rushed Council. Politicians aren’t making loud noises just yet, although they do have a debate this fall about increasing City revenue, and really hate the idea of “taxes.” Let’s suppose that a casino, whether downtown or at Woodbine, will come before Council again.

Wild Predictions

The makeup of Council is pretty much the same as the 2010–14 term and arguably slightly more right-leaning. The mayor’s policies are largely the same too. The outcome is probably going to be pretty much the same.

Possible outcome: A downtown casino proposal fails narrowly. A Woodbine casino proposal could pass, but nothing actually happens.

We told you time is a flat circle.

What’s Next

Unless someone finds a way to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow and break the time loop, at any time we could be forced to relive any number of other Council debates. For Council Watchers, this is our lot in life. We hope everyone saved their buttons/lawn signs/twibbons!


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The post Oh God, is the Toronto Casino Debate Back Again? appeared first on Torontoist.

Five years ago yesterday…

…I walked into Toronto City Hall for the first time ever. I’d lived in Toronto since 2003, but I had very little interest in city politics—I was too busy first being a student, and later being poor. Then word started going around about proposed sweeping budget cuts. I was worried about how it would affect Parkdale, the neighbourhood I’d moved to in 2009 and grown to love. The mayor had said he would sit at City Hall and listen all night, if need be, to people’s concerns. How often do you get a promise that the mayor will listen to you, personally?

So, off I went. It was magical. You can read my account here. (Or the Star’s. Or Torontoist‘s liveblog. Or watch Matt Elliott’s hand-picked highlights.) I got thrown out near the end, when I yelled “Shut the fuck up” at Cllr Mammoliti. (I was horribly ashamed at the time. I cried about letting down all the councillors who had behaved with such dignity and composure all night. Later, I would learn that this was a normal response to Mammoliti and I was just saying what everyone else was thinking.)

I was hooked, and I kept going back. Normally cautious about privacy, I unlocked my Twitter account so I could livetweet and talk to strangers. I started reading reports and writing blog posts. I became part of a cadre of amateur City Council watchers who followed City Hall for fun—and later, as a calling, as many became writers, editors, political staff, and activists. Many of the people from the 2011 all-night meeting became familiar faces, friends, colleagues, and even chosen family.

I remember the morning I showed up to a Budget Committee meeting and realized that being motivated to show up to Budget Committee meetings in the morning was a rare gift. I remember that night in the pub I started crying because I realized politics could be a genuine career and a ticket out of poverty. I remember when people started buying me beer. I remember the first time I knocked on a door for a Council candidate and asked a complete stranger to vote for them. (It was fucking terrifying, and I’ve done it countless times since.)

It’s been a wonderful five years. I’m intensely grateful for it, and uncertain but optimistic about what the future will bring. Thanks to everyone for reading and being a part of this journey. I will totally hit you up to fund my publication/campaign in the future.

City Council Preview: July 2016

Crossposted from Torontoist.


This is the last City Council meeting before its two-month summer break, and boy, is it a doozy. On the agenda: yet another Scarborough subway/light rail showdown, supervised injection sites, the Road Safety Plan, street hockey, the latest craft brewery, and more.

Continue reading City Council Preview: July 2016

Municipal Budget 2017: Brace Yourselves, Budget Cuts Are Coming

As City staff gear up for the 2017 budget process, the mayor has declared that an above-inflation property tax revenue increase is off the table. Council has also successfully pushed off introducing any new revenue tools until next year. What does that mean for the budget? We read the City Manager’s latest report so you don’t have to.

Read more at Torontoist…