Mr. Ashton, a former city councillor, and David Bednar, the general manager of the CNE, have begun asking councillors to think of the fair’s future as they decide whether to welcome a casino and where to put it.
The pair met this week with Councillor Adam Vaughan, leader of the anti-casino forces on council. They plan to sit down with as many other local politicians as possible before council votes on the issue early next year.
“We need people to understand clearly that this is about the 18-day fair and whether we can run it in a bathroom when we used to run it in an entire house,” Mr. Ashton said, referring to concerns a casino would squeeze out the carnival. “We need to enliven the CNE nation and we need to direct them at the decision makers.”
Unlike the Metro Toronto Convention Centre’s Front Street location, no formal proposal has yet come forward for a casino at Exhibition Place. Oxford Properties Group, which owns the MTCC, last week unveiled a $3-billion plan to erect a glittering block of convention and retail space, including a hotel and casino.
However, Mayor Rob Ford has repeatedly mentioned Exhibition Place, alongside the Port Lands, as a leading alternative because the city owns the land, meaning the municipal government could reap a windfall in land-lease cash on top of gambling revenue.
MGM Resorts International, the Las Vegas-based gambling behemoth, has also talked up Exhibition Place as an ideal home for a sprawling integrated resort.
Without any specifics on how much land an Exhibition Place casino would require, it is difficult to say whether the fair could still be shoehorned into the site.
Councillor Mark Grimes, the chairman of Exhibition Place’s board of governors – the body that oversees the site, not the fair – said that at this point there is no intention to push out The Ex.
“It’s a historic fair. It’s a big part of the city of Toronto,” he said. “They would have to be taken into account in any plan that would come forward, that’s for sure.”
Alan Feldman, MGM’s senior vice-president of public affairs, said he is confident his company could make room for The Ex.
If council votes for a casino at Exhibition Place, MGM is looking at using 10 to 20 per cent of the site for a $3-billion to $4-billion integrated resort with shops, restaurants, convention space, a 1,000-room hotel and a theatre that would serve as a permanent home for Cirque du Soleil.
“We have no interest in displacing anyone,” Mr. Feldman said. “If council should choose Exhibition Place as the site, then we would certainly be ready to roll up our sleeves and work with the good folks at CNE and find ways to enhance the circumstance for both of us.”
Founded in 1879 as an industrial and agricultural showcase, the CNE is now a rollicking end-of-summer tradition that features a midway, a farm, concerts, a three-day air show and a smorgasbord of artery-clogging goodies.
A 2009 study found The Ex had a $58-million economic impact in the GTA. Although the fair ran deficits in the past, it turned a total of $9-million in profits between 2002 and 2011.
Proceeds from the temporary table-games casino the CNE hosts annually contribute about a quarter of the fair’s revenue, according to Mr. Bednar.
The Ex would take a hit if its casino ceased to operate, he said, but it’s too early to say whether that would happen. What is clear, Mr. Bednar said, is that the fair and its long-time home are deeply interconnected, making it difficult to move the event elsewhere.
“Whatever other location you would pick would be equally abhorrent. In the popular mind, the association is between the event and the site.”
The fair is not the only potential obstacle to a casino at Exhibition Place.
A New-York based private hotelier, the Library Hotel Collection, is scheduled to break ground in the first quarter of next year on a 26-storey hotel at Exhibition Place.
The company, formerly HK Hotels, has a 49-year lease with exclusive rights for 15 years to operate a hotel on the Exhibition Place grounds. The company declined to comment for this story. “It is all full speed ahead,” said Hugh Mansfield, the vice-chair of the Exhibition Place board. “They have an obligation to be completed by 2015 for Pan Am [Games]. So we are not putting the brakes on this thing over a speculative idea.”
Mr. Feldman of MGM said he believes the hotel issue could be sorted out in pre-development.