TORONTO – Officials are betting on “CNE Nation” to rise up and defend the Canadian National Exhibition grounds if a casino tries to muscle in on their territory.
CNE president Brian Ashton made it clear Friday the fair won’t get pushed around — or pushed off — its turf if it becomes the chosen site for a possible Toronto casino.
“For me it is almost like coming into my house and asking me to live in a shed in the backyard,” Ashton said.
MGM Resorts International has made no secret that Exhibition Place would be where it would want to build an integrated resort if it wins the right to build a casino and if Toronto council tells the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation it would accept a casino downtown.
But as Toronto’s casino debate moves closer to a council debate in late March and early April, Ashton said the 134-year-old fair won’t be going down without a fight. He was confident fans of the Ex won’t sit on the sidelines of the casino debate if the fair is threatened.
“We have CNE Nation and we’re ready to mobilize it,” he said. “I think if you were to ask people in a survey if a casino located at Exhibition Place killed the 18-day fair, would you support a casino? I think you’d get up to 70%, 75% of people saying no.”
Ashton wouldn’t say if the CNE is planning on surveying residents.
“We will use all the levers and opportunities that MGM and (OLG chair) Paul Godfrey use to promote casinos,” he said.
Ashton was at City Hall Friday for a meeting in Mayor Rob Ford’s office. The former councillor said the meeting was meant to update Ford’s chief of staff Mark Towhey on the CNE’s current position on casinos.
The CNE has met with MGM about its plans to build a casino at Exhibition Place but Ashton says they came to the conclusion the Ex “couldn’t survive” with a casino on the site.
The two groups are planning to meet again later next week where MGM will show CNE officials a model of their plans, Ashton said.
“Again we’ll be asking some very, very tough questions,” he said. “We’re large event, we use every square foot of that property.”
In an editorial board meeting with the Toronto Sun Friday, MGM and Cadillac Fairview officials said they are interested in Exhibition Place because of the existing infrastructure there.
MGM VP Alan Feldman confirmed they met with CNE official and thought they had a “great discussion.”
Feldman said he was surprised to hear the CNE officials public comments that “the world is coming to an end.”
—Files from Sun staff