TORONTO – Ontario Lottery and Gaming announced Thursday it was looking for private companies to run casinos in different areas of the province, including Toronto and Ottawa and as far north as Thunder Bay.
OLG issued a request for information from the private sector after dividing the province into 29 zones for potential casino sites, including one that pits Toronto and Mississauga waterfront locations against each other and against land-locked Markham to the north.
The government wants to maximize gambling revenues and make it as convenient as possible for potential casino customers, said Finance Minister Dwight Duncan.
“We have huge under-serviced markets, i.e. Ottawa, i.e. Toronto, not to mention other areas of the province where the modelling shows that people who live in one community are forced to travel 20 or 30 kilometres to access gaming,” said Duncan.
“It is about serving customers where they wish to be served.”
Too many people are leaving Ontario to gamble, said Duncan.
“I think there’s 46 planes leaving Pearson Airport this week for various (gambling) designations,” he said.
“This is about maximizing profit, better running the organization, more efficiencies which will yield more revenue.”
Duncan insisted no community would be forced to accept a casino against its will.
“It’ll depend on interest, and I would stress we would only do it where there’s a willing host community,” he said.
However, the New Democrats were fuming after learning a requirement that municipalities first hold a referendum on whether or not to host a casino had expired, and was quietly replaced this week with a requirement to consult local residents.
A referendum gives people the right to decide whether or not they want a casino and is a much better barometer of public sentiment, said NDP finance critic Michael Prue.
“The government simply went in secret and put down a regulation they didn’t tell anybody about, taking that right away,” said Prue.
“It’s input from the local council, but it’s not consultation with the people.”
Progressive Conservative Monte McNaughton said he knows there are Liberals who support his private member’s bill to mandate a local referendum where ever a casino was being considered and criticized the Liberals for changing the rules.
“This is just a sneaky, back-door approach. They’re not interested in listening to people at all,” said McNaughton.
“The province is broke. This all about a cash grab for Dalton McGuinty.”
OLG said it was talking with municipalities to gauge interest.
“We will focus only on communities which are interested in having a facility,” OLG CEO Rod Phillips said in a release.
Duncan admitted a Toronto casino would hurt business at existing casinos in Niagara Falls and Rama near Orillia, but said OLG was confident it would not cripple the competition.
“There will be impacts to Rama and to Niagara resulting from a Toronto casino, but the market can in fact support all of them,” he said.
“It may affect Rama and Niagara in a modest way, but they are still going to be very vibrant.”
There is a possibility existing casinos in other areas will be closed or relocated, added Duncan.
The OLG’s plans would also increase the number of slot machines in the province from 22,000 to 32,000, possibly in communities from as far south as Belleville to Kenora in the far northwest.
“The total slot machines, the total table game configuration will depend on a whole bunch of calculations,” said Duncan.
The request-for-information from OLG is just one step in a long process, he added.
“This is the next step in gathering information to make informed decisions as opposed to the way things were done sometimes in the past.