Woodbine believes casino plans will mesh with proposal to build a new community in northwest Toronto
But final plans of the partners, given the rights to develop and operate three GTA casinos, are under wraps while stakeholders are consulted.
By DAVID RIDER
Aug. 9, 2017
As GTA residents await details about new casinos, the start of Woodbine’s dramatic transformation is already under way.
A new partnership of Great Canadian Gaming Corp. and Brookfield Business Partners, announced Tuesday as the winner of a competitive bid process to develop and operate three GTA casinos, is keeping plans under wraps while consulting “stakeholders” including the host communities.
But Woodbine Entertainment Group, operator of the horse-racing track and its largely undeveloped 684-acre Rexdale site, already has a master plan, with the first rezoning applications being reviewed by the City of Toronto, to build a new community, including gambling, in Toronto’s northwest corner.
WEG chief executive Jim Lawson said Wednesday that based on his preliminary talks with Great Canadian Gaming, and the international reputation of Brookfield as a big-league developer, he believes their plans can mesh to create a new “city within a city” that happens to stable more than 2,000 horses.
Racing uses about 240 acres at the site’s south end. Another 60 acres to the north will be devoted to entertainment uses including gaming, restaurants, a hotel, convention space and theatres.
“About half of that may well be for initiatives of the winning bidder but we're certainly open to speaking to them about further development,” Lawson said.
Replacing Woodbine’s slot machine parlor with a full casino, and other venues to make it the “integrated entertainment complex” demanded by Toronto council when it gave conditional approval for a casino there, should be “the catalyst, the trigger” for the rest of the site, Lawson said.
Further phases would include office space, retail, cultural and educational facilities, and a sizeable residential component including townhouses.
“Brookfield is a world-class developer and there is keen interest especially in the balance of the north corridor,” Lawson said, adding that the focus of WEG, formerly the Ontario Jockey Club, is to foster development that will promote and sustain the horse-racing industry.
Chuck Keeling, Great Canadian’s vice-president of stakeholder relations and responsible gaming, said in an interview Wednesday that the new casino partnership will work with Woodbine’s master plan.
“Our plan will be complementary and work hand-in-hand with Woodbine’s,” he said.
WEG hired California-based architects and planners SWA Group to develop its master plan.
SWA architect and urban designer Andrew Watkins said in an interview from Laguna Beach that work continues to create a “node” serving community around Woodbine, along with future visitors and residents, and travelers who can be lured from layovers at nearby Pearson international airport.
That includes more intersections along Rexdale Blvd. to bring “permeability” to a Woodbine site that is now an “island”, he said, and connecting the green-space trail networks of Mimico Creek and the Humber River.
Although the new casino will be an important anchor, Watkins added, many U.S. gaming complexes are now drawing more revenue from restaurants, theatres and other venues surrounding the poker tables, roulette wheels and slot machines.
Toronto council included 21 conditions in its 2015 approval of Woodbine as a casino site, many aimed at ensuring Rexdale residents get a share of socio-economic benefits, and that the casino operator and Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. work to minimize gambling addictions and other social ills associated with casinos.
Councillor Mike Layton, who voted against having any casinos in Toronto, remains convinced that expanded gambling at Woodbine will only hurt the community.
“A good chunk of the research about casinos suggests a lot of their income comes from people who live locally,” he said. “Some jobs are creating but more are lost by the closure of businesses in the surrounding areas.
“OLG is giving out 22-year casino leases so you don’t get a second toss of the dice. We’re not investing in the economy to get a real economic boost - a significant amount of economic activity will be sucked out of that community and the provincial government is banking on that.”
OLG says gross gaming revenues for the slot machines at Woodbine and Ajax Downs track, and the small Great Blue Heron casino near Port Perry, total about $1 billion per year. The agency’s modernization plan aims to boost revenues but OLG won’t say how much it hopes to earn from the sites once they host full casinos operated by the new private partnership.