A new staff report suggests the City of Toronto would be powerless to fight a casino if the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation approved the city as a site and the government stepped in.
The province has the power to issue a ministerial zoning order to the city, which trumps local bylaws, according to the report.
“They have constitutional powers that allow them to override local objection and local planning rules and just do what they want,” said Councillor Adam Vaughan, a vocal opponent. “That’s the way the game is played.”
The government did just that more than a decade ago, when it put slot machines in at Woodbine Racetrack. Then, city councillors were so opposed that at one point they refused to issue building permits so the racetrack could renovate for slots.
But OLG officials say they will not put a casino in a municipality that doesn’t want one.
“We need municipal consent to put in the casino,” says OLG spokesperson Tony Bitonti. “We’ve said we’re not going where we’re not welcome. We’ve been very clear with that right from the very beginning.”
The province has identified 29 preferred gaming zones across Ontario, 24 of which already have slots or charity casinos and five that are new.
They include North Bay, Belleville, Kenora, Collingwood/Wasaga and either downtown Toronto, Mississauga or Markham/Richmond Hill.
Exhibition Place and the Metro Toronto Convention Centre have been bandied about as potential sites for a casino resort in Toronto.
Bitonti says there is the possibility of a second casino in Toronto if the Woodbine Entertainment Group, which runs the racetrack and is in an existing zone, is chosen as a private operator. “There is a possibility of adding gaming tables there,” said Bitonti.
There are many supporters who believe a casino at Woodbine could save thoroughbred racing in the province.
Slot machines account for 50 percent of Woodbine’s revenue. Operators expect the racetrack to fold once it loses the machines, which will happen when the government privatizes the gaming industry.
“We don’t believe we can survive on just the wagering from horse racing,” said Jane Holmes, vice president of corporate affairs for Woodbine Entertainment Group. “It’s still a question mark.”
Holmes says WEG would continue to run the track if chosen as a private operator. “That would be our intent.”
The group commissioned a poll last spring that found 60 per cent of Etobicoke residents supported Woodbine becoming a full casino.
“We are an existing gaming site in the city. And we have had no issues with respect to crime,” she said. “We’ve had none of the issues that people think occur when there is a casino that comes to town.”
Belleville and North Bay have both said yes to a casino. Bitoni said Sudbury is close to approving one, but is deciding whether to move it closer to town. The Sudbury Downs racetrack, which has slots, is about 30 minutes away.
The city staff report says zoning in the Toronto and East York districts doesn’t allow for casinos. The report will be presented at a special meeting of Toronto and East York Community Council at 6 p.m. Oct. 10, in the Toronto City Hall council chamber.
“If Queen’s Park wants to listen to local advice, or respect local perspective, and the premier said he will, then holding the no-zoning position should give them a clear indication that the casino is not welcomed in the city,” Vaughan said.
A second city staff report identifying sites as well as the possible economic, social and environmental impacts of a casino will go to council’s executive committee Nov. 5.