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The fatal flaws in Toronto’s casino pitch

Ivor Tossell explains why Toronto is better for having walked away


 

Toronto, if nothing else, is good at saying no to things.

It is a win, to be sure, to be rid of the proposal for a downtown mega-casino. The city’s council dispatched the idea with a vote even more decisive than anyone dare whisper beforehand. When the results were announced, there was an audible gasp in the council chamber: After a long year of debate, 40 out of 44 councillors voted to flatly refuse a new mega-casino in the city. Even more striking, a face-saving compromise by the mayor – who vigorously campaigned for a casino – was also soundly rejected.

Like Rob Ford’s mayoralty, the casino was already dead, but to forestall any potential of revival, council gave it the full Dracula treatment and staked it through the heart. The mayor was spared the same treatment, escaping reporters camped out around his office by fleeing down a side exit, down private stairs to the parking garage, and gunning it.

The casino debate was not polarizing so much as it was insufferable.

It sprawled off, kraken-like, grabbing at disparate interests, promising goodies for assorted constituencies and frequently tying itself in knots as it created odd alliances. Here was the spectacle of a union-busting, government-shrinking mayor arguing that government had a duty to create a putative 10,000 “good union jobs.” The casino’s opponents manned every argument they could lay hands on, from moral to urbane to, dare we say, the pronounced local aversion to having things built in that region planners define as “my backyard.”

The result was a bit of a wash. Do casinos help build great cities? (No.) Do casinos single-handedly ruin great cities? (Also no.) Can they ruin neighbourhoods? (Yes.) Do they prey on the vulnerable? (Is the Pope Argentine?) Are they good for union jobs? (The ones that allow unions might be.) Will they be a boon for local restaurants? (The celebrity chef who was doing PR for MGM thought so.) Can they deliver riches? (Yes.) Would they deliver as many riches as they’re promising? (No.) Would they have turned the city into a hive of scum and villainy? (The police chief said no, so long as we hire him more cops.)

Are downtowners a bit precious about their neighborhoods? (Yes.) Is this actually one of Toronto’s better features? (Also yes.) Would casino corporations magically build us a giant new convention centre at the price of hosting a dubious multinational operation that siphons cash from those who can least afford it? (Sure.) Would they ruin our brand? (Right now our brand is Rob Ford, so no.)

In the end, the argument ended up being about everything except the basic question of whether the government has any business running casinos in the first place. In the proposal’s dying days, Ford tried to reframe the question as a purely mercantile equation: A casino is only worthwhile if it brings in so much in hosting fees. But money was only ever one part of this mess.

In the end, there were two fatal flaws with the casino pitch. First, we were never talking about a simple casino. We were talking about an enormous casino. This was to be a entertainment megaplex, a 24/7 pleasure-dome. Toronto has acquired, over the years, an aversion to megaliths. They are the tokens of smaller cities that are told that, if they just carve out a block of town to build this one terrifically large thing – a casino, a freeway, a convention centre, a retractable domed stadium – then they will finally step onto the world stage. But it doesn’t work that way. If large doodads made a city worth living in, we’d all be in Cincinnati.

The bigger problem was that the casino was promoted as a social benefit. What a strange thing! The case for the casino amounted to all its fringe benefits: The jobs it would create, the convention centre it might build, the theatre they wanted to bring, the increase in convention business, the payout to the city. But shouldn’t a thing be built on the merits of the thing itself – in this case, an outsized gambling hall?

This brings us to the ambient lunacy of the government being in the casino business in the first place, a lunacy that lingers on even as the Toronto project is dead. Governments get into casinos on the theory they can play both sides, since they hold all the cards. In theory, government can mitigate casinos’ negative influences by taking the proceeds and ploughing them into worthier causes. In practice, they end up hopelessly at cross-purposes — at once tut-tutting citizens to “play within their limit” while working ever-harder to part them from their money. And the latter impulse always wins, because governments are the biggest problem gamblers there are. They want to do good, but they need the money.

If the government wasn’t in the casino business, then managing vice would be a regulatory matter: If a private operator wanted to come into a municipality, then a city should have the tools to decide on it, regulate it, put conditions on its operation and then tax the snot out of it.

Even then, the addictive power of that tax revenue would remain. But it would spare us the gong show of a government working against itself. Instead of being peddled to us by our own leaders as a grand money-making panacea, casinos should be a matter of a private company wanting to do something, and citizens deciding if and how they want to allow it. The government can be pimp or protector, but not both.

Casino developers promised us everything: Plazas and theatres and transit and glittering buildings and gobs of cash. It was more than they would have delivered, certainly, and yet saying no required a certain resolve. We can’t fob off the hard work of raising revenues and building a city through hard choices and building political consensus. As Rob Ford is so fond of saying, you don’t get something for nothing. Toronto would have survived a mega-casino just fine. But we’re stronger for having walked away.


 

The fatal flaws in Toronto’s casino pitch

  1. PETTY issue for council to waste time on. Ford already wisely declared the issue dead. Toronto loses to provincial greed. Oh well maybe next year with a better deal. Anything done today can be undone.

    • The Mayor simply saying “the casino is dead” does not actually resolve the issue. The procedure requires that Council vote, otherwise the issue is in limbo, and theoretically could have been raised again within weeks or months – which would have wasted even more time. Best to kill it off properly.

      • Still can be resurrected given the need.

        • Need for what? No city NEEDS a casino. Heaven help us if that’s our only option for economic development or whatever.

    • Canuck, it’s Ford who has waisted our City’s and it’s citizen’s time and MONEY. His declaration that “it’s dead” was pure grandstanding, an attempt at saving face and an opportunity to make a WEAK jab at our fantastic Kathleen Wynne. Not to mention a delay tactic IF he were to survive this latest scandal of being a Crackhead. Just as you have raced to be the first to post and surprise!, comment about “provincial greed” just like a Boogie man’s remark. How pathetic. “Anything done today can be undone”? BWAAAHAHAHAH. That remark and people like you are exactly why a Vote was needed today in order to drive a stake through the heart of this MEGA MALL CASINO attempt on our beautiful and historic Exhibition Grounds.

    • Ford wasted over a year of everyone’s time with his casino misadventure: Council’s, staff’s, and the public’s. And then, five days before the vote is set to go ahead, he tries to call it off? To save time?

      No, to save face, and to save the fight for another day, when he hopes he might be able to win it (delusional, yes, but that is our mayor).

      It is to their credit that Council decided to put a proper end to the time wasting.

    • Except that Ford doesn’t have the authority to declare any issue ‘dead’
      Rob and Doug were the ones dragging out the casino discussion even when it was evident that the vast majority of Toronto residents had no interest in a casino.
      They were the ones wasting council’s time.

  2. i say again. WHAT 10,000 jobs.

    Thats more than all the casinos in Ontario put together.

  3. The casino would be great for the city. More jobs, more money brought in with the tourists. These people [the councillors] are doing this just because of personal animosity to Miller, instead they should be thinking about the city and the taxpayers.
    Revenue from taxes on the casino could be used to improve the TTC, not raise taxes to do so.

    • There is no evidence to support the notion that a casino would increase tourism, and ample to suggest that other things could be done with the same land that would have a far greater impact.

      • It’s a new attraction – it will increase the tourism, even if it is temporary. It also creates a tourist trap where they spend money.

    • Taxpayer, if you want to complain about taxes as per your pseudonym, then get your facts straight and don’t just repeat heresay. More this and more that would definitely not have been the case. There were 40 councillors out of 44 who voted NO. 4 councillors voted YES. Step out of the past, take the chip off your shoulder and start really THINKing about WHAT IS GOOD FOR TORONTO?

      • Only 3 councillors… and one mayor.

        • dt11, ironically the Mayor Voted NO to the Casino.

      • What’s good for Toronto? The councillors and the mayor that work together.

        • It’s the Mayor and a small group of his councillors who refuse to work rationally on this council. Notably his brother and Giorgio Mammoliti… you know the type, middle aged angry men with prostate issues, I’ve got mine, screw you types much like yourself.

    • “Animosity to Miller”? That makes no sense. Perhaps a dictionary would help you understand what “animosity” really means.

    • “Revenue from taxes on the casino could be used to improve the TTC”

      Casino hosting fees would cover less than 150m of subways a year.

      In reality the hosting fees would probably be used to cover the extra infrastructure costs and policing required to have that type of facility right downtown.

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