A reader who wrote Mayor Jim Watson to say he doesn’t support a new casino in Ottawa received the following message from the mayor’s office and kindly forwarded it to me. It’s pretty much all boilerplate — although at least one aspect is downright insulting (I’ll get to that later) — and likely something of a form letter sent out by Watson’s staff.
Here’s the bulk of it:
As you know, Ottawa has been identified by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) as a possible host city as it looks to modernize gaming in the province. There has been much interest in this issue, and I believe we need to set a way forward that is clear, fair and transparent.
This process begins with City Council signalling its support, in principle, of a possible new Ottawa gaming facility. This decision would not commit the City to a gaming facility, or a specific site location. The Finance and Economic Development Committee of Council considered this matter at its meeting on October 2nd. Following several hours of discussion and input from more than 30 public delegations, as well as representation from the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, the City Economic Development Department and Ottawa Public Health, the Committee approved the recommendation that directs me to send a letter indicating ‘in principle’ support. The matter will now move to full Council tomorrow, October 10, 2012.
During the deliberations there was discussion of all aspects of gaming in the context of the current OLG process. Citizens brought forward concerns with the social and health impacts of a new casino. The Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Isra Levy, indicated that Ottawa Public Health would be engaged in providing analysis, which would be part of any future evaluation of a concrete proposal. The President and CEO of OLG, Mr. Rod Phillips, clearly indicated that any final decision on a new gaming facility would require Council approval. And other local residents extolled the virtues of Rideau Carleton Raceway and the horse racing industry as they made their comments.
It was an evening well-spent in collecting opinion and input at the very earliest stages of consideration of this potential new casino. I recognise and appreciate all the concerns and matters raised. In my view, it is important to notes that every Ottawa dollar that is spent at the Gatineau casino is a dollar lost for Ottawa taxpayers. An Ottawa gaming facility would allow us to reclaim money currently going into Quebec roads, schools and hospitals. If a new gaming facility were to open in Ottawa, I am proposing that any new revenue generated for the City be split equally between infrastructure renewal and economic development initiatives that create jobs in Ottawa. In a time of infrastructure challenges and federal job cuts in Ottawa, we need to thoughtfully consider this opportunity.
At the same time, we need to fully understand the economic benefits and potential public health impacts of a gaming facility. We recognise the health impacts that have been raised. That is why we are asking staff at Ottawa Public Health to provide the background and advice. It is also worth noting that OLG spends millions of dollars each year assisting with the challenges of gambling addiction. You can find out more about their Responsible Gaming program on their web site. Revenues from OLG also support health care and other social spending within the province of Ontario. Today we lose the revenue across the river to Quebec, while having to deal with any potential health fallout within our own city and healthcare system.
It is also important to ensure that residents have ample opportunity to provide their feedback through public delegations at committee. When a final decision is made, we will ensure that we have all the necessary information in front of us. You have mentioned a concern over parking downtown, again it is important to note that there is no site proposed. Should there be one in the future, parking would certainly be a top priority, as is the case with all casinos.
To proceed with this issue, I have proposed a clear two-stage process. The first stage commenced on October 2, 2012 with Committee consideration of a staff report, released on September 25, which included a direction to staff to look at the economic benefits of a gaming facility. This October 2 FEDCO meeting was held in the evening to make it easier for residents who work during the day to comment on the staff report. As I noted, a good number took advantage of this opportunity and others took the time to write in with their comments.
If City Council approves the report on October 10, I would write a letter to the OLG to signal that the City would be supportive of a gaming facility in principle. As was made clear at Committee, this would not commit the City to a gaming facility, or a site location, but it allows the OLG to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) to accept bids from proponents.
The second stage would occur in 2013. It would involve the OLG coming back to the City after completion of their RFP process with a prospective proponent and location. At this time, we would receive a second set of public delegations so that residents can speak to the specific proposal and location. We would also receive the staff report requested earlier on the economic impacts of a gaming facility, and also have an opportunity to review input from staff at Ottawa Public Health.
As previously mentioned, while this is a process driven by the OLG, Ottawa City Council holds the final approval on rezoning for a new gaming facility. It is also important to note that currently there are no sites proposed or even shortlisted by the OLG. Again, it is vital to note there is no site proposed, and should one be brought forward, issues such as parking like you have mentioned would be prominent and addressed, as with all casinos.
It is in this spirit that I think we should proceed. While some, myself included, have expressed early personal opinions about possible locations for a new or expanded gaming facility, we should not pre-judge or rule out any locations or areas until we receive a final proposal from the OLG.
I will be encouraging Council to allow the OLG to work with proponents who have the expertise and market depth to identify options for Ottawa that are most likely to lead to long-term success. We should see what the best proposal is and make an informed decision when the time comes.
Along these lines, I also want to recognize the long-standing, positive relationship we have had with the Rideau Carleton Raceway (RCR). We all recognize the importance of the Raceway to the local economy. I will be calling on City Council to encourage the OLG to run a fair, competitive process that provides all proponents, including the RCR, an opportunity to compete on a level playing field. Further, as Committee has approved, Council will ask the OLG to consider providing an opportunity for the RCR to be pre-qualified to take part in the final bidding process, given their strong record of success in the Ottawa region.
Gaming is not new to the City and its residents. The City has had a long-standing and successful relationship with the RCR, with the slots welcoming 2 million visitors per year. Since 2000, the slots at RCR have generated over $45 million in general revenue for the City. In 2011 alone, the Slots at Racetrack program contributed $4.4 million in revenue to the City of Ottawa. Another gaming option is about 6 km from the Ottawa downtown core – the Gatineau casino. Industry experts suggest that a majority of the Gatineau casino’s revenues comes from Ottawa residents – revenues that the City of Ottawa and the Province of Ontario do not benefit from. These economic benefits, driven by Ottawa residents, instead accrue to the Province of Quebec. They use this money to invest in roads, hospitals and schools – while the City of Ottawa wrestles with tough decisions about infrastructure renewal and feels the effects of federal job cuts.
Ottawa residents enjoy easy access to these two facilities, but also have smaller-scale gaming options right in their neighbourhoods. This includes charity and church bingo fundraisers, as well as lottery tickets sold in most convenience stores. Given these existing gaming options, a new Ottawa gaming facility would not be a big change from what our residents are used to. However, the difference would be that the City of Ottawa would receive new revenues that would be earmarked for investments in infrastructure renewal and economic development initiatives that create jobs in Ottawa.
In March 2011, Council’s solid vote (20-3) in favour of adding gaming tables at the RCR underscored Council’s desire to provide residents with a broader range of quality gaming services. The decision was made with the goal of generating more revenue for the City of Ottawa derived from that which is currently crossing the river to Quebec.
My discussions with Council colleagues also indicate that the vast majority of members of Council do not favour holding a divisive referendum on the issue of gaming. Instead, we should let the best proposal come forward based on industry expert opinion and make a decision, as we are elected to do on many issues each and every day.
I recognize that the idea of expanding gaming in the City of Ottawa may not be met with unanimity. But, I also believe that, given our City’s experience with gaming, residents would support a modest expansion of gaming in Ottawa. I also believe that, at the end of the day, individual residents are best able to decide whether or not they want to use a gaming facility in our community – it really comes down to an issue of personal choice.
Thank you for taking the time to voice yours.
A couple of things about this letter (there are always a couple of things).
First, I don’t know when the mayor discussed the idea of a referendum with his council colleagues, but it certainly wasn’t at any public meeting that I or my Ottawa Citizen colleagues attended. Plus, there’s a big consultation swath between referendum and what we saw at last week’s finance committee meeting. Council could have ordered an actual poll, reached out to people by email or regular mail if they really wanted a sense of whether people supported a new casino. Councillors don’t have to be bound by public opinion, but surely it should inform their decision.
Secondly, and most disturbingly, is the part about council approving 21 gaming tables at Rideau Carleton Raceway (I highlighted the paragraph in red, for anger).
This is a little bit of council wonkery, but I think it’s worth remembering that Watson walked the motion to approve those RCR gaming tables onto the council agenda, with zero notice (which is not usually allowed). Presenting the motion directly to full council prevented the public from being allowed to speak to the issue. The 21-tables motion was passed that day, and later approved at a planning committee (where it was discussed as a zoning issue, not about whether people agreed with the principle of more gambling). And, I’d like to add, no councillors asked about the fact that the city doesn’t share in any of the revenues in those gaming tables.
But it’s downright dirty for the mayor — and a number of other councillors (Peter Hume made this same argument last week at committee) — to circumvent due process to support those 21 gaming tables and then turn around and claim council’s approval of them proves Ottawa accepts gambling.
There’s too much double-talk in this casino debate.