Woodbine Casino To Be Ontario’s Biggest

Toronto's Woodbine Racetrack will undergo a major expansion, doubling slots and table games and adding a hotel, dining and retail. The plan, approved 25-19 by Toronto city councillors, also will direct casino revenue to a fund helping low-income neighborhoods. Officials in Niagara and Fort Erie protested the Woodbine plan.

Toronto city councillors recently voted 25-19 to approve an expansion plan which was rejected two years ago, that will make the Woodbine Racetrack the largest casino in Ontario. Under the approved plan, Woodbine will expand its slot machines from 2,700 to 5,000 and also add 120 table games for a total of 300. The entertainment complex ultimately will include a hotel, restaurants and retail areas.

Ontario Lottery and Gaming estimated expanded gaming could generate at least $805.4 million a year n new revenue, bringing Toronto an additional $7-$11 million, for a total of $22.5-$26.5 million from Woodbine.

 Woodbine Mayor John Tory, a longtime supporter of the project, said, “My support for taking this proposition to the next stages does, however, arise out of a profound determination that I have to see more jobs become available.” He said the casino would be a huge boost to the area “that has been starved for jobs and opportunity for a long, long time.” Former Mayor Rob Ford agreed the area needs “stable, good-paying union jobs.”He acknowledged concerns over problem gambling, but said, “You have to weigh the hundreds of good paying jobs compared to a few of the social problems.”

Woodbine Entertainment Group Chief Executive Officer Jim Lawson said of the expansion plan,“This is a real trigger for us moving ahead with additional hospitality and entertainment uses on the Woodbine lands.”

Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker said the city also plans to establish ways to invest additional gaming revenue into a community benefits fund to aid low-income neighborhoods across the city. “If it actually gets implemented, it will transform this city,” De Baeremaeker said.

The Woodbine expansion plan was met with resistance by Niagara Mayor Jim Diodati, who called it “devastating.” With more than 50 percent of casino patrons at Niagara facilities coming from Toronto, the plan is a real threat for Fallsview Casino and Casino Niagara. Diodati said, “Casino Niagara and Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort employ 4,000-plus people. They are the number one employer in the region. Cannibalization is what is being done. They’re just cutting the pie into smaller pies. We need to make the pie bigger.” Niagara Falls received more than $21 million a year from the OLG for hosting the two casinos here.

 Diodati said he was not opposed to Toronto having a casino. But he added, “There needs to be a strategic plan for the benefit of moving everyone ahead. We’re all in favor of a win-win, not a win-lose.” He noted, “Solutions are there. Things that will level the playing field.” For example, Diodati said he’s waiting for a request for proposal from OLG for a 7,000-seat theatre that could attract major performers and events. He added, “The casino in Niagara Falls, New York is investing millions of dollars, they provide free booze to their customers and are beating us at our own game.”

 Diodati said modernization of the industry seems to be happening everywhere but Niagara. He said, Casino Niagara, which opened in 1996, needs to be rebranded. “If this were a Horton’s or McDonald’s franchise, the owner would have been evicted. Every 10 years they have to change,” Diodati stated. He added OLG has done little for Fallsview since it opened in 2004.“It’s their jewel but they’ve done nothing,” he said.

 Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop also took issue with the Woodbine decision. In 2012, the Fort Erie casino and others in border towns were closed by the OLG in an effort to modernize the gaming industry. The casino, Redekop said, “provided a flow of revenue to actually support the horse-racing industry. It also provided money to municipalities to improve infrastructure and provided good-paying jobs in the community.”

 Niagara Falls MPP Wayne Gates said attendance at the track, off-track betting and food and beverage sales are increasing. He said bringing back slots would protect the track’s 1,000 jobs and bring back the jobs that were lost when the slots were removed. “Three years ago, Premier Kathleen Wynne promised to integrate horse racing and gaming with the OLG, which would bring the slots back. But we’ve seen no action. This government continues to gallop right past Fort Erie,” Gates said.

 However, the situation is unlikely to change, said OLG spokesman Rui Brum. “It is important to note that OLG’s old business model was not sustainable over the long term. For example, a decade ago, OLG’s border casinos and slot facilities generated an annual profit of $800 million. Today, that number is less than $100 million.”

 Brum added governments across Canada and globally are facing deficits, so it “makes sense for OLG to engage the private sector to make capital investments. OLG’s mandate is for a province-wide modernization. While there may be impacts to a specific site, OLG’s goal is to ensure that all of our sites remain successful,” Brum noted.