Does Toronto need a casino?

Why the city shouldn’t dump its hopes down a black hole

Anna Galkovskaya/Getty

Try as it might to rid itself of the habit, Toronto the Good hangs in there.

Presently, the city is up to its clerical collar in a debate over whether or not to admit a provincial casino on its valuable central lands. This might seem like a no-brainer to outsiders. Downtown casinos have sprung up in cities across the country without major incident, but it’s still fraught stuff in Toronto: Remember, this is the city that required not one, but two referenda to even allow streetcars to run on Sundays. (The motion passed by a whisker on the second try in 1897; after all, you can use the streetcar to get to church.)

An enormous consultation has been launched. Across the four corners of the megacity, a cavalcade of city staff, politicians, developers and consultants have trouped from gymnasium to hall to foyer, setting up placards full of financial estimates, health-board reports and planning bafflegab. (Here is a map. Now here is a map with colours and arrows!) Senior city staff stood around, fielding questions. Passers-by were directed to round tables to participate in “facilitated discussions” and fill out surveys. Consultants who specialize in consultation were brought in. After a fiasco at the first session, when anti-casino councillors got upset at the lack of a public-speaking component and staged a rebel counter-consultation in another room, an open mic was added. You can also go and do the whole thing online, until the end of this week. If there exists a stray opinion on casinos anywhere within city limits, the city manager’s office wants it captured, fumigated and pinned to a corkboard.

It is, perhaps, the most Torontonian of all undertakings: A giant exercise in determining the city’s feelings about acquiring something it already has. There is, after all, a sizeable racetrack and casino at Woodbine, lighting up the night by the airport in the top-left corner of town. But the real money here is on bringing a casino downtown, and that’s another proposition entirely.

The casino debate is really a whole series of smaller debates wrapped up into one fraught package. Boosters of a new casino—who mostly seem to be landowners, casino operators and Rob Ford—want it because it would mean a substantial, but highly ambiguous, annual fee for the city’s coffers, and could net the city, in the mayor’s words, “10,000 or more good-paying union jobs.” Members of said hospitality unions have also been cautiously speaking out in favour of casinos at the consultations. And besides, if a casino is going to get dropped into the region one way or another, why shouldn’t Toronto be the one to pocket the cash?

Alas, the odds are long that the numbers we’re being given are accurate. Projections of the city’s take from the casino are at once wildly optimistic, wildly inconsistent, and keep getting revised downwards. The city hired consultants to bandy about hypothetical figures like a delightful $168 million a year, while the province—which actually holds the purse strings and needs the money, too—is talking in the neighbourhood of $50 to $100 million. Those “10,000 or more” jobs are unlikely, seeing as not even the biggest casinos in Vegas employ that many. All the while, the city would end up shouldering all the resulting costs of traffic, policing and public health.

Local merchants are worried about losing business. The Toronto Board of Health voted to recommend against a casino on account of problem gambling. (Before you say “Addicts will just go to Casino Rama instead,” remember that the evidence suggests that when it comes to feeding addictions, proximity matters.)

Beneath it all, there’s that latent local aversion to casinos, period. Some of it looks like old-school Protestantism: At the final consultation session, at the Toronto Reference Library on Saturday, anti-casino voices dominated. When an older gentleman, making one of the few pro-casino deputations, said “There’s no question problem gambling exists. Should we then put only one LCBO in Orillia?”, voices in the crowd immediately shot back “Yes!”

But anti-gambling morality is a misleading canard. There’s moralizing here, all right, but it’s not the legacy of those who’d stop streetcars on Sundays; it’s the righteousness of urbanites trying to protect hard-won gains.

They have a point. An “urban casino” is an oxymoron. Montreal was smart enough to maroon its casino in the middle of the St. Laurent. Halifax put its own at an inert, and vaguely forlorn, end of the waterfront. Ottawa sent its casino to Gatineau. (Sorry, Gatineau!)

Cities thrive when they’re tightly packed, full of things to do and not interrupted by monoliths like giant stadiums, expressways or convention centres—the very things that hopeful politicians keep trying and failing to defibrillate their downtowns with. The last time you left the Rogers Centre after a Blue Jays flameout, did you yearn to linger around its windswept plaza?

In Toronto’s post-industrial Port Lands, for instance, the city only just fended off an attempt by the brothers Ford to scrap plans for a new neighbourhood of midrise buildings and build a mega-mall, monorail and Ferris wheel instead. Now, a local landowner is passing out plans for a temporary casino in the area, surrounded by an absurdly large sea of parking spaces.

On a practical level, lively streets—the thing that makes cities so appealing—depend on lots of people hopping back and forth between many destinations at all hours. Casinos, on the other hand, are designed to suck people in and keep people in, monopolizing their time and their money. They turn away from the outside world, blocking daylight to obscure the passage of time. Come for a drink. Stare at the slots. Stay for the show. Stay longer for the sensory overload. Stagger out some hours later.

Developers are now promising “urban” casino designs that look like downtown buildings. But that won’t change what goes on inside; they’ll still act like black holes on the street. Giant “destination” attractions, especially ones like that, just don’t make good places to live or work around. The environment is meant to make you forget where you are, not remember. Some tourist draw it would be: Come to Toronto, for the casino that could be anywhere.

So if you hit on the notion that a casino “just isn’t Toronto,” this is what it means. For all the endless, innumerable things that this city has done wrong, here’s the one thing it got right: When a plague of bad ideas gutted city centres across North America through the middle of the 20th century, Toronto’s residents took up the cause of old places, small places and living places. The result was a city whose greatest challenges stem from the fact that everyone wants a piece of it. Today, free land is almost gone and Toronto is earnestly trying to build those living places again. A casino just doesn’t figure in. Sometimes Toronto the Good knows what’s best.




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Does Toronto need a casino?

  1. I don’t agree. Plenty of large cities such as Vancouver, London, New York, Singapore etc.. have casinos and they’re not black holes sucking people away from other attractions. Nor do tourists visit those cities specifically because of their casinos.

    • New York City does NOT have a casino. Mayor Bloomberg reiterated his dislike for them just last fall, quashing attempts to put one at Coney Island. Hong Kong doesn’t have one. Think about that! Neither does Rome. World-class cities don’t need them, don’t want them. Putin banned casinos in all of Russia a few years ago.

      • Technically, slots are offered at Aqueduct Racetrack, in Queens. It’s a “racino”. Hong Kong does not, but Macau does.

    • None of those cities have a Casino except for Singapore. The City of Vancouver voted No to a downtown Casino in 2011. There is no Casino in Manhattan. (closest is in Queens) The City of London – No, A couple of Pubs with gaming, World Class cities don’t have casinos for a reason. They have taste and standards.

      • We don’t need a casino in Toronto but get your facts right. Vancouver has a casino Edgewater Casino is Downtown Vancouver’s

        • Excuse me Drew? That’s a small (boutique) casino/ gaming facility leftover from Expo 86. Vancouver whole heartedly rejected having a full fledged Casino complex built in their City. They unlike Toronto have a vision for their City.

  2. Two reasons why toronto downtown can’t have a casino – 1) Parking, 2) traffic – A Casino would make travelling on the Gardiner or DVP even more disastrous.

  3. If “the casino that could be anywhere” is like other North American casinos, then perhaps we are right to vote no. But if we take our cue from world-class casino complexes – like the Marina Bay Sands complex in Singapore – then we would be adding another feature to our city which outshines the competition. Yes, it is an expensive proposition, but one that brings in far more than it uses up, and which acts as a fantastic tourist draw and entertainment centre for wealthy adults – you know, those people who are buying all of Toronto’s empty condos.

  4. Toronto needs a Casino for the following reasons.
    1. Tourism revenue
    2. Job for thousands
    3. City improvement

    4. Engineers are planning to build the Casino as an architectural wonder, which will be an added feather to Toronto’s cap

    • We can find our revenue sources elsewhere eg: Financial District, Discovery District, Film Sector, Educational sector etc. To resort to finding revenue in a casino shows that the city is a failure, which it is not. It doesn’t improve this city in any way. In fact it makes us look low class. Casino architecture is not a wonder or a feather in Toronto’s cap but simply a pathetic box where those who can’t afford it go to lose their money. It will take jobs away from the surrounding area. It will be a net job loss & any new jobs will be low paying. There is nothing, absolutely nothing that shows a casino is good except for it’s owners. It would make us look like losers.

    • No

    • Yes, it will be a wonder (architectural remains to be seen). If built, people years from now will look at the gutted downtown core, the many vacant storefronts, the misery of those who lost it all and now swell the social assistance rolls and ask “I wonder what possessed them to build this?”

  5. those thousands of jobs will be mostly part time like all other casinos have done in the last few years. Part time jobs don’t receive benefits!! I work in a casino close to Toronto and they just replace full timers who leave with more part time positions and get rid of full time positions while giving the employee first crack at the part time position replacing the one they lost. They will promise you the moon and give you nothing but a headache

    • “They will promise you the moon and give you nothing but a headache”

      Sounds like the entire premise on which they are founded.

      Does Toronto need a casino? No, it does not.

  6. Any city or society that is willing to sacrifice the poor and the most desperate in order to gain a small share of the take has lost the right to govern since they no longer seek to protect the poor and weak which, as Socrates pointed out in Plato’s Republic, is the definition of justice and the foundation of good government. Also lost in the casino debate is the whole issue of addiction and the encouragement thereof. As concerns morality, it is ironic that many casino supporters denigrate those who become gambling addicts and regard the addicts’ problem as moral failure or lack of self-control, when they are supporting the means by which the addiction is created or perpetuated and complicit in the financial ruin and occasional suicide of those for whom gambling is not longer a choice but a compulsion. To quote Victor Hugo from Les Miserables: “If souls are left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty party is not the one who commits the sin but the one who permits the darkness”.

    Ironic, too, is the realization that the the biggest gambling addiction in Ontario resides with the Provincial Government, who seek to expand gambling in order to raise revenue, and wish to share that addiction with the city of Toronto by offering them some of the take in exchange for valuable waterfront real estate and an affirmative vote of council on whether to build the casino that is praised as a cornucopia of jobs and revenue.

    Of course, city council could say no, but the OLG under Paul Godfrey – he who gave us Skydome (cost to taxpayers $570M + $400M cost overruns and operating deficit; sold for $151M) – insists that a casino will be built in the GTA. The provincial government does have Ontario Place which is conveniently closed and whose future has yet to be decided; and one wonders if a casino will be ultimately forced down the throat – or, more appropriately, up the behind – of the city, the way amalgamation was by the Mike Harris government, despite a resounding no vote from Toronto citizens in a referendum.

    • Good point about Ontario Place (whole post is excellent btw). I’ve been thinking about how the plans for a Toronto casino must have been developing for at least a few years. Ontario Place, owned by the provincial government, closed for “refurbishment” just a year ago, and just a month or so before chatter started about a Toronto casino. I’m far too cynical (but still not enough to keep up) to think that is pure coincidence.

  7. for those who want to say yes: if your beloved child or your grand child became a gambling addict because you say yes to build a casino that is so close and accessible to them, can you ever rest in peace? Can you really say you love them?

    No parents or grannies who love their kids or grand kids will ever put a sugar-coated poison (that might look pretty or can even attract others to come visit) inside their house..
    Is Toronto your home? Is future Torontonians your kids? Do you care?

    Dont say that your kids or grannies are well trained and wont get addicted. I, a youth worker of 10 years, have seen smart students who studies actuarial science who got addicted. Given the right conditions, anyone can become an addict. The right conditions include an accessible casino.

    please dont use urban planning as the reason, as urban planning is for next generation; building a casino is destroying the next generation;

    please dont use guestimated monetary benefits as the reason, as we all know that the price paid by gambling addicts and their family, especially their children is extremely high;

    please dont use “image of metropolitan” as the reason, as noone will associate vegas with cleanliness, brightness, and goodness;

    Say No to Casino Toronto before you regret for your kids or grand kids (born or to be born), please…

  8. Toronto will get a casino whether it wants it or not should Rob Ford win his court case tomorrow.

  9. Toronto needs a casino, whore houses, 24 hr bars and handguns

  10. Had a big fuss in my city when a casino came to town. After four years no one cares

  11. A megacasino will provide jobs and revenue. So would a Death Star. Both carry huge social costs. No one in favour will guarantee what the city’s NET profit will be. I expect it will be thirty pieces of silver.

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