Delegations present choice of economic benefits, risks of gambling addiction
About 200 people packed city council chambers Tuesday night to hear the pros and cons of locating a full-fledged casino in Ottawa, with warnings about increased crime and gambling addiction compete with economic benefits and more revenues for municipal coffers.
“We are saddened to think that the name of our nation’s capital would be cheapened by a casino,” Kris Nanda, with the Riverview Park Community, and one of nearly three dozen people who lined up to speak on one side or another on the issue. The speakers represented everything from the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce and Ottawa Rickshaws to the Rideau Carleton Entertainment Centre and the Green Party of Ontario.
Members of council’s finance committee were charged with voting on a motion recommending that the city tentative endorse the idea of Ottawa becoming a “‘host city’ for a gaming entertainment centre.” The Ontario Lottery Gaming Corporation is seeking expressions of interest from various Ontario municipalities that might be interested in such a project.
Mayor Jim Watson defended the idea of a tentative approval for the project, pointing out that the city has plenty of opportunity to back out at a later date if its conditions for hosting a casino aren’t met. “We have an option to say no down the road,” he said. “To say no at this stage would be irresponsible.”
However, there were dissenters. After nearly five hours of public testimony, some councillors such as Gloucester-Southgate Councillor Diane Deans said they could not support the motion without more research and evidence.
Others such as Kanata North Councillor Marianne Wilkinson, while supportive of the motion, wanted to see more public consultation before any final decision.
Earlier, OLG president and chief executive Rod Phillips, in an appearance before the committee, painted a bright picture of the benefits that would accrue to Ottawa with new casino. He pointed out that already the city receives about $4 million in revenue each year from the OLG’s operation of slot machines at Rideau Carleton Raceway. A new casino would boost that slots revenue by about 40 per cent. As well, a casino would have a significant impact on Ottawa’s economy, providing “hundreds of direct permanent jobs” during its operation as well as “hundred more from construction.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, organizations such as Chamber of Commerce, the Bank Street Business Investment Association and Ottawa Tourism came out in support of a casino.
Chamber president Dave Donaldson urged the committee to support in principle having the city host a new gaming facility, arguing that it would bring in much-needed revenue to the city and having considerable economic impact.
Gerry LePage, with the Bank Street BIA, said a casino in Ottawa would allow the city to “repatriate” much of the money that now goes to the casino in Hull.
“For the benefit of tourism in the city we support (the idea of a casino project),” said Noel Buckley, with Ottawa Tourism.
On the other side, organizations such as the Amethyst Women’s Addiction Centre, the Centretown Community Health Centre and the Rideau Addiction and Family Services spoke against the project, with representatives warning about the consequences of gambling addiction.
Carol Wu, with the Amethyst Centre, argued that gambling doesn’t only affect the individual gambler, but also the gambler’s family. The results, she said, are increased crime, depression and suicide.
Gambling is an addiction with extreme consequences,” said Dallas Smith, a local addiction counsellor, arguing that there is considerable evidence showing that the presence of casinos contributes to family breakdown, domestic violence and bankruptcy. ““Gambling has the highest rate of suicide of any type of addiction,” he said.
At least some committee members shared those concerns. “Will your casinos drive up crime?” said Kitchissippi Coun. Katherine Hobbs, as the OLG officials. She, too, expressed concern about the possibility of increased levels of drug trafficking and prostitution.
Paul Pellizzari, director of policy & social responsibility for the OLG, tried to address these issues. He said the corporation actively works to prevent and mitigate the effects of problem gambling through extensive training of staff, consultation with addiction experts and strict regulation of casino operations.
“We don’t want problem gamblers at our sites,” Pellizzari said, noting that between one and five per cent of adults have a moderate or significant gambling problem. “It’s not good business. We want to build a sustainable player base.”
At one point, some committee members expressed concern about what might happen to Rideau Carleton Raceway if it was not the site for a new full-fledged casino. Bay Ward Coun. Mark Taylor suggested that there is room for a full-fledged casino while leaving Rideau Carleton Raceway to benefit from its provincially sanctioned slot machines. Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Peter Clark said he expects OLG to give serious consideration to using Rideau Carleton Raceway as a casino site.
The mayor has said Rideau Carleton Raceway deserves to have an automatic place on the shortlist when the OLG seeks bidders for a casino project.
Gordon McDonald, with the National Capital Region Harness Horse Association, urged the committee to be firm in supporting locating any new casino at the raceway. A casino elsewhere would in all likelihood result in the “demise” of harness racing in the Ottawa area and the “euthanasia” of hundreds of horses, as well as the loss of jobs for those employed in the industry.
Other members of the public were skeptical about how sincere council members are in soliciting citizen views given the apparent support of a majority of council for the project.
“Casinos are seen as an easy solution for cities that are dying,” said Kris Nanda, suggesting that both city council and the citizens of Ottawa need more time to reflect on the would-be casino. A casino, he said, can be “a quick fix with long term consequences that outweigh the benefits.”
Liam Mooney, representing a newly founded anti-casino group, A Better Bet, echoed that view. “This is a process that has been set up for one result and one result only,” he said, urging the committee to delay any decision until Ottawans as a whole have a chance to consider the idea in more detail.
“This matters to people. You need to consider what people are saying. What if this is wrong for Ottawa?”
The committee’s recommendation will be considered at city council meeting next Wednesday.