There is still time for engaged citizens to organize and advocate for a smarter, healthier, and saner decision on the proposed casino.
By Ryan McGreal
Published February 04, 2013
this article has been updated
As of right now, the most likely scenario is that Hamilton will get a new casino, and it will be downtown.
This is despite the fact that a majority of Hamiltonians - and particularly Hamiltonians living downtown - don't want one, and despite the fact that the evidence indicates a casino will have a net negative impact on the local economy and a net negative impact on public health.
In the most likely baseline scenario, most lower city councillors will vote against the casino, while most upper city and suburban councillors plus the Mayor will vote for it.
The supporters will argue that Hamilton cannot afford to risk losing its $4.5 million share of the slots revenue, since we decided to put that money into general circulation instead of earmarking it to special projects like most other cities.
The predictable collateral damage - lost retail business in the downtown core and an increase in bankruptcy, family breakdown, illness, depression, and suicide - will be regarded as an acceptable cost and, in any case, someone else's problem (i.e. downtown).
It's important to understand the economic forces driving this casino proposal.
Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) recognizes that competition from new facilities just south of the American border is hurting its casino business. In response to the loss in tourist revenue, OLG has decided to target Ontario residents directly by building more and bigger casinos close to local population centres.
Make no mistake: OLG wants to extract more money from more Ontarians. An OLG casino is ultimately nothing more or less than a voluntary regressive tax collection centre, and the more addictive OLG can make its facilities, the more money it can extract.
That, incidentally, is why it's so disconcerting to consider that a downtown Hamilton casino will be much closer to vulnerable communities at risk of higher rates of problem gambling and all of the social harms that come with it.
As Toronto's medical officer of health warns, both gambling and problem gambling increase when gambling facilities are closer.
Further, the new jobs created will mostly be part-time and low-income, and they must be weighed against the jobs that will be lost from the current gambling facility at Flamboro Downs.
In her research report for the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, Sarah Wayland concludes:
North American research cited in this paper indicates that government revenues generated by gambling receipts are gained from a small portion of the population, a population that is disproportionately low income, less educated, and more likely to suffer from some form of gambling disorder.
As such, Hamilton's low income households are likely to bear significant social, economic, and other costs should a casino be built downtown.
This is not some unforseen, unintended consequence of the OLG's strategy. It is OLG's strategy.
All of this might be worth it if the overall benefits outweigh the costs, as some casino supporters have argued. However, an overall benefit is a logical impossibility.
The whole point of a casino is to take in more money than it pays out, and the OLG model ensures that most of the money ends up flowing out of the city. For the Municipality to get its $4.5 million share, $100 million needs to flow out of the city.
Not only is that money siphoned out of the city, but it is also money diverted from other local entertainments - restaurants, theatres, clubs, galleries and other amenities - which will suffer lost revenue.
Casino boosters love to mention that Brantford Mayor Chris Friel changed his mind about that city's casino. However, it's important to keep the details in mind:
Friel credits casino revenues with bringing a university campus downtown after Council earmarked the money for that purpose. Hamilton, by contrast, dumps its casino money into general revenues.
The casino itself has done nothing for downtown revitalization. In fact, Brantford recently demolished a line of 41 pre-Confederation buildings on a city street just one block away from the casino.
Friel himself says we should leave our casino in Flamborough, not move it to the downtown core.
Casinos, like other megaprojects, do not play well with others. A casino is designed specifically to be a self-contained experience that monopolizes the time and money of its visitors and does nothing to activate its surroundings.
Worse, most casinos are surrounded by parking. OLG casinos generally have one parking spot for each slot machine, and the Hamilton casino bid anticipates 1,200 slot machines. That in itself would be devastating to a downtown trying to crawl out of a postwar legacy of demolitions and surface parking.
It feels very, very much as though the fix is in for this proposed Hamilton casino.
This morning, the Mercanti family is launching their casino pitch at a private, invitation-only event being held in Hess Village. Only journalists with "press credentials" will be allowed, and live-streaming is prohibited.
They might as well have just come out and said, "dirty hippy bloggers not welcome".
I have never advocated any initiative or any policy that I did not want to share as widely as possible. Good ideas get better the more exposure they receive. In contrast, the secretive, closed-door nature of this initiative augurs very poorly for its likely impact on the public interest.
Of course, politics in a liberal democracy is nothing if not changeable, and there is still time for engaged citizens to organize and advocate for a smarter, healthier, and saner decision on the proposed casino.
It's not too late to stop this stupid, short-sighted, small-minded, regressive, contemptuous get-rich-quick scheme from sabotaging the real, organic, citizen-led revitalization that is already breathing life back into downtown Hamilton.
A coalition is already forming around this issue - http://www.nodowntowncasino.ca - and an intense, concerted, broad-based campaign might yet change enough votes on Council to put a stop to it.
As citizens, we each have a responsibility to get informed about the issue, study the evidence, make an informed decision that reflects our values, and communicate that decision effectively through the political process.
Update: this article originally stated that the OLG casino model requires 4,000 parking spots. An alert reader noted that the parking requirement depends on which of 29 zones across Ontario the site occupies. The 4,000 spot parking requirement is in zones C1 and C2 in Toronto, which would hold 4-5,000 slots. Hamilton is in zone SW9, which would hold up to 1,200 slots. OLG casinos follow a rough parity between slots and parking spots, i.e. a casino with 1,200 slots may be expected to have around 1,200 parking spots. You can jump to the changed paragraph.