Billion-dollar casino project is Toronto's for the taking: OLG

TORONTO – A “once in a generation” opportunity for a new casino complex that will create thousands of jobs and bring in billions of investment dollars is Toronto’s for the asking, the chairman of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. said Friday.

“It’s yours if you want it,” Paul Godfrey said after renewing his call for a downtown casino in a speech to the Toronto Board of Trade.

“You don’t want it? Well, we’ve got to move on.”

Godfrey’s latest pitch for a “gaming entertainment centre” in Toronto comes just a few weeks before the city’s executive committee is expected to discuss the proposal.

He’s made it no secret that he wants to see a gaming facility built in Toronto’s downtown or along the waterfront, but time is running out, said Godfrey, who also sits on the board of director of Tourism Toronto.

OLG hasn’t “drawn a line in the sand” with a deadline, but it would like to know the city’s decision by January or February at the latest so it can proceed with the project as planned in 2013, he said.

OLG won’t impose a facility on any municipality and there’s been plenty of interest among 33 other communities to host the new gaming facility, he said.

Putting it somewhere other than Toronto won’t produce as many jobs or the same economic growth, Godfrey said. And it may not include the kind of world-class convention facility that the city needs, he said.

“I think this is — as far as I see it — a no-brainer,” he said.

“All I’m saying is that if it’s not in Toronto, it will be somewhere else. In Markham, in Richmond Hill, in Vaughan, in Mississauga, and it won’t be as iconic.”

A gaming and entertainment facility in downtown Toronto would create 6,000 construction jobs over three years, 12,000 “well-paying” jobs once completed and lead to billions of dollars in capital investment, Godfrey said. It would be the largest development project anywhere in Canada.

World-class gaming operators say they’re prepared to spend up to $3 billion in capital costs in downtown Toronto, he added.

There’s been opposition to the proposed project from the get-go, but those naysayers don’t know all the facts, Godfrey said.

The complex would be built by the private sector, without taxpayer dollars, but they’d still have to play by the OLG’s and the city’s rules, he said.

Less than 10 per cent of the square footage would be used for table games and slots. The rest would include hospitality, entertainment, retail and convention space.

Concerns about crime are “over played” and haven’t materialized in other communities, such as the Woodbine Racetrack in the city’s west end, he said.

Both the Progressive Conservatives and NDP want a municipal referendum before any new casinos are built.

“It feels to me that the Ontario government is once again gambling, and I’m worried that people in Toronto are going to lose,” said New Democrat Jonah Schein, who represents a Toronto riding.

“We need to have this debate. We shouldn’t rush this.”

MGM, whose holdings include the Bellagio hotel and casino in Las Vegas, is one of the private companies interested in building the casino “resort” in Toronto.

Toronto is “uniquely positioned” to become another casino destination because it has direct flights to almost anywhere in the world, especially Europe and Asia, said Gamal Aziz, president and CEO of MGM Hospitality.

MGM is looking at three Toronto locations for the proposed project: the Portlands, the Metro Convention Centre and the Exhibition grounds, he said.

“We will only be in Toronto if we’re invited to be in Toronto,” Aziz added.

“For what we do, downtown is the option that we would focus on.”

Celebrity chef Mark McEwan added his voice to the chorus of proponents of the project who want Toronto residents to keep an open mind.

“This would be a huge loss for Toronto if we didn’t get this,” said McEwan, who has several upscale restaurants in the city, including North 44 and Bymark.

Toronto should develop its waterfront the way Chicago has, where tourists stay for days, he said.

“And I believe you’ll see millions of people radiate into Toronto to see this complex and to spend time in this complex,” McEwan said.

Conservative Lisa MacLeod wants the province’s auditor to review the new gaming and casino plans, given that OLG reported in 2009 that Ontario casinos lost $46 million.

The proposed casino was part of a sweeping OLG plan unveiled last March to expand and “modernize” gambling in the province to help eliminate Ontario’s $15-billion deficit by 2017-18.

The plan included shutting down its slot machine operations at racetracks and closing or relocating “underperforming” gaming facilities in favour of opening new ones closer to potential customers, such as Toronto.

Shutting down the slots at racetracks is killing thousands of jobs in rural Ontario and the OLG needs to be accountable for those losses, MacLeod said.