U.S. gambling giants working hard to win the coveted prize of Toronto are eager to fund non-gambling attractions at Ontario Place if they can operate a casino across the bridge at Exhibition Place.
That scenario — helping the cash-strapped province rebuild Ontario Place, pouring Exhibition lease payments into City of Toronto coffers and creating thousands of jobs — is being floated by some aligned with MGM Resorts.
Rival bidder Caesars Entertainment is also intrigued by the idea of an “integrated resort” straddling Lake Shore Blvd., with clearly marked sides for family and adult fun, but doesn’t want to appear to be pushing a particular GTA location.
Officials with those companies, along with Las Vegas Sands and Woodbine Entertaiment Group, are forbidden from publicly discussing their plans under terms of the “Request for Information” each has submitted to Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp.
But the Star spoke to several on background this week and discovered that, while officially quiet until Toronto council decides this fall whether to welcome a casino, the fight for what one called gambling’s “biggest opportunity in the world right now” is quietly feverish.
Multi-billion-dollar visions are being refined and touted, politicians and union officials lobbied, polls and focus groups conducted and potential Toronto council votes tallied.
An official working on one casino giant’s bid estimated that, when the dust settles, their client might have spent $2 million.
John Tory, the radio host-politico who recently released a provincially commissioned Ontario Place report calling for a mixture of parkland, residences and some retail and/or entertainment, has been visited by a parade of lobbyists.
“I’m telling them the report is out, my role is finished,” said the former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader. Asked about putting the non-casino parts of a resort at Ontario Place, Tory was cautious.
“The notion of some private-sector investment in restaurants or a small hotel or a new Forum (amphitheatre) is not out of the question,” he said, “but our report was clear in that we must maintain public access to the water and also keep a significant majority of the site for an urban park.”
The Ontario government, hoping to generate an extra $1.3 billion in gambling revenue,announced in March it will close underperforming casinos and entertain private proposals to build and run gambling facilities in 29 “zones,” including the GTA.
The province has touted the vision of a “golden mile” of casino-funded shops, restaurants and entertainment on Toronto’s downtown waterfront, but said it won’t force a casino on the city.
Mayor Rob Ford’s executive committee voted in May for a staff report on potential benefits and costs of a Toronto casino. To be completed by Oct. 9, the report will assess the potential impact on jobs, tourism, businesses, addiction and crime.
Possible locations include city-owned Exhibition Place, the Port Lands, Downsview Park and Woodbine Racetrack, which is already home to 3,000 slot machines. Oxford Properties, owner of part of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Front St. W., is including a possible casino in its plans for a massive redevelopment, sources have told the Star.
Casino proponents and opponents agree a majority of councillors currently oppose a local casino. But those on council’s left wing might feel pressure from friendly sources.
Mike Yorke, president of Carpenters’ Union Local 27, said he’ll ask his members to back the casino push because of the resulting construction jobs and benefits to other workers, including hotel and restaurant staff.
“Given the potential benefits to our city, I don’t see any major opposition from our membership,” said Yorke, who acknowledged his local was given information by a proponent of the MGM Resorts bid.
The Central Ontario Building Trades, representing more than 80,000 skilled workers, hasn’t been lobbied but is interested in a project that business manager James St. John estimates could employ 500 to 1,000 workers per year for a few years.
St. John wants the province to write into its request-for-proposal process, expected to launch this fall, that any winning bid ensure a certain number of young people from troubled neighbourhoods get apprentice construction opportunities, similar to his unions’ Hammer Heads Program.
“We’ve seen the rash of gang violence and murders — this could help fight that,” St. John said.
The players in the race for the right to build a casino-resort in the GTA:
MGM Resorts International
The player: Owns or has a stake in: the Bellagio, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay and Mirage in Las Vegas; casinos in Mississippi, Michigan and Illinois and a casino-resort in Macau, China.
The bid: MGM was first to express strong interest in Toronto and, so far, has been the most aggressive in trying to win support for a multi-billion-dollar casino/resort complex, likely at Exhibition Place.
The player: Operator of more than 40 casinos and casino-resorts in the U.S., Canada and other countries, including Caesars Palace, Bally’s Las Vegas, Flamingo Las Vegas, Harrah’s Las Vegas and Caesars Windsor.
The bid: Showing strong interest in Toronto but taking pains to listen to provincial and city officials before laying out a specific vision or location. Is playing up its Canadian experience in Windsor and saying it will consider a non-Toronto GTA location.
Las Vegas Sands
The player: Developer of “integrated resorts” best known in Vegas for The Venetian and The Palazzo, but has enjoyed success outside the U.S. with the The Sands Macao and lavish Marina Bay Sands resort in Singapore. CEO Sheldon Adelson is in the news as a big Republican donor who fights attempts to unionize his properties.
The bid: The latest official entry into the Toronto casino sweepstakes is stressing that its resort would complement, not cannibalize, local hotels and other tourist-reliant businesses.
Woodbine Entertainment Group
The player: Operator of Woodbine race track and 3,000 slot machines in Rexdale. Employs 2,300 full- and part-time employees. Partner in the stalled Woodbine Live! entertainment-retail complex.
The bid: Woodbine is stressing that it is locally owned, already a gambling site and can easily expand into a full casino. Says it expects OLG to consider more than possible gambling revenues for the province when it makes a decision on a GTA casino.
Toronto-based billionaires Larry Tanenbaum of MLSE and Gerald Schwartz of buyout firm Onex Corp. have expressed interest in investing in a Toronto casino. Many expect Nevada-based Wynn Resorts and possibly Malaysia-based Genting Group to submit a proposal.