We downtowners are not anti-casino or anti-gambling: we just recognize a bad deal when we see it. A casino can't fix our problems, and might make them worse.
By Michael Borrelli
Published November 12, 2012
Windsor, Brantford, Niagara Falls, Sault Ste Marie and Thunder Bay: each is home to permanent Ontario Lottery & Gaming Corp. casino of the kind Hamilton City Council is now considering, and only one of them is any kind of tourist destination, a title Niagara Falls held long before it ever had gambling.
Yet that reality hasn't stopped casino proponents from pitching a 24/7, 364-day-a-year facility on its thin benefits, while largely ignoring its economic risks and social costs.
It's the same 50 shades of hucksterism that sold Springfield a monorail in the fictional universe of The Simpsons. In that classic 1993 episode, citizens were bamboozled by the antics of a fast-talking salesman boasting, "I've sold monorails to Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook, and by gum I've put them on the map!"
Now we have OLG travelling the province and dangling the prospect of gambling revenues in the faces of Ontario's cash-strapped Springfields.
On the tour last Friday was OLG president and CEO Rod Phillips' visit to our council's casino sub-committee. Even though OLG is the government owned corporation responsible for the tricky tightrope act of selling "responsible" gambling, citizen reports from the meeting strongly suggest that questions of money will ultimately rule the day.
After Mr. Phillips was submitted to a number of important and critical questions by Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla, it became clear that a downtown location is preferred by OLG, and Mayor Bob Bratina's said nothing to suggest he's overly concerned with such a plan.
Only time will tell if the Mayor and council will listen to the polls--scientific and anecdotal--showing a majority of Hamiltonians oppose the idea, but hopefully they will also be reviewing the existing studies that demonstrate the meagre benefits of hosting a casino.
For instance, a 1999 Social Planning and Research Council study on the social and economic effects of siting a permanent casino in Hamilton (a proposal which 60% of residents rejected in a 2000 referendum) notes that the choice to patronize a casino may come at the expense of existing hospitality and entertainment options in Hamilton.
While it wouldn't be wise to base a decision solely on the conclusions of a 13 year old report, it is worth pointing out that the modest economic gains predicted by the study were made before we saw an explosion of gambling options in Ontario. The report even stated that "The potential financial viability of a permanent casino in Hamilton has been eroded by the expected permanent casino in Brantford..."
Despite two nearby casinos and a slew of online gambling options, proponents still showcase all sorts of rosy optimistic economic scenarios for Hamilton, but these boosters--few of whom live in downtown Hamilton--will never be held accountable when their visions don't come to pass.
Meanwhile, residents of downtown's Code Red neighbourhoods won't be able to escape what the SPRC study called the "parallel and equally significant social impacts that manifest themselves in problem gambling, impacts on families, crime, etc."
A well-heeled tourist from the suburbs may have no problem driving away after a small loss at the tables, but some of Hamilton's most vulnerable and hard-luck citizens will have a much more difficult time limiting their losses, paying off their debts, and fighting addiction when there is a casino down the block.
It's no surprise that the unquantified costs of a casino downtown have spurred residents and community groups to express their concerns.
My residents group, the Beasley Neighbourhood Association, has been building connections with local groups to make sure our voices are heard above the noise of jackpot sirens and clinking coins.
We've been expressing our concerns which are backed up by a diversity of community organizations like Wesley Urban MInistries and the Kiwanis Boys and Girls' Club of Hamilton, and faith groups like the Downtown Hamilton Mosque and Living Rock Ministries.
We believe that a potentially transformative development like a casino downtown needs to be well thought-through and fully discussed, not pushed along by OLG's short timetable (which, thankfully, has been extended to March of next year).
We also believe that a casino doesn't fit the vision of the community as laid out in the city's Downtown Secondary Plan, which advocates for a go-slow approach aimed at "creating quality residential neighbourhoods."
And we don't buy into the myth that without a casino, our city is in dire straits. The $4.5M in revenue that we stand to lose if slots are removed from Flamboro Downs is significant, but OLG admitted that increases associated with putting a facility downtown are only in the 5-10% range.
The revenue-sharing deal proposed by OLG supports this modest projection of benefits, with CHCH reporting that the additional slot machines at a downtown casino would translate into an deal with the City worth only $5.1M.
A potential gain of a measley $600,000 needs to be carefully weighed against the projected increases in property values that will accompany the ongoing changes currently making downtown a more desirable place to live and raise a family.
Downtown Hamilton has the potential to greatly benefit from waves of young families looking to escape the high cost of living in Toronto, but it will certainly be a lot harder to sell these folks on the merits of our city if there is a casino downtown.
At the end of the day, we think it's a choice between a quick bet on a casino, or a responsible investment in our city's long-term future.
We downtowners are not anti-casino or anti-gambling: we just recognize a bad deal when we see it. A casino can't fix our problems, and might make them worse. Until we're sure downtown is back on its feet, let's stick to the existing plan, step aside, and let another municipality roll the dice.
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