The fatal flaws in Toronto's casino pitch - Macleans.ca

The fatal flaws in Toronto’s casino pitch

Ivor Tossell explains why Toronto is better for having walked away

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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.