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Is the third time a charm for Rexdale revitalization?
A decade after an entertainment complex at Woodbine was first proposed, Mayor John Tory has reignited the discussion as the number of jobs in Rexdale continue to decline.
March 15, 2015
By Laura Armstrong

As a youth living in Rexdale, Ayaz Karim was too young to drive to nearby Woodbine Racetrack to try his hand at the slots, but as the third of four children he watched his older sisters forgo the local gaming facility in favour of the nightlife at Niagara Falls, 125 kilometres away.

“I guess not a lot of people my age or even within 10 years (of age) found it interesting because it was only slots and filled with older people,” Karim said. “Going all the way to Niagara was appealing because of the casino, the hotels, the nightclubs and restaurants.”

Now 26 and living in Vaughan, Karim wonders why his old stomping grounds can’t be upgraded to offer similar amenities, and in the process bring jobs to the low-income neighbourhood known for its industrial roots.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, casinos bring value to a city, like tourists, money, jobs and housing,” Karim said. “I know (casinos) have a bad reputation because of chronic gamblers and drunks, but that’s all manageable.”

Boosting the entertainment options for the community is also an idea Mayor John Tory is considering. On Wednesday, the Star exclusively revealed the mayor is willing to consider expanding gambling beyond Woodbine’s horse racing and its 3,000 slot machines, as long as plans for the development also include bringing entertainment facilities to job-starved Rexdale.

Tory is not the first local politician to discuss an expansion on the Woodbine racetrack lands; his decision to consider recent lobbying by track operators Woodbine Entertainment Group reignites a decade-long debate.

News of a massive entertainment-retail complex spanning between 100 and 150 acres of the land first broke in 2005. Woodbine Live, a 25-acre complex featuring cinemas, a performance hall, restaurants, bars, clubs, stores and a hotel, was slated to open in late 2007 or early 2008.

Five years later, with the land still sitting empty, construction on the billion-dollar development was once again scheduled to begin in the fall of 2010. But nothing was built by February 2013, when the relationship between Woodbine and The Cordish Companies, a Baltimore-based developer it partnered with to construct the expansion, ended.

The most recent development in the saga came three months later, when in May 2013 Toronto city council voted to ban the gambling expansion 24 to 20. The rejection of table games happened during a tense meeting that saw the more controversial, high-profile bid to host a downtown casino resort shot down 40-4.

Times are tough in suburban Rexdale, which was created in the mid-1950s by local developer Rex Heslop. Today, entertainment in the community centres on the racetrack and the Woodbine Shopping Centre across the street, which boasts a Fantasy Fair for young children and Rainbow Cinemas, but is also home to empty storefronts.

But not everyone in Rexdale believes a full-fledged casino is the key to the area’s much needed revitalization.

Barry Marsh, 61, has lived about a 10-minute drive from the racetrack for the last 30 years. He followed the casino debate closely up until May 2013, and was both surprised and disappointed to learn the issue was back on the table this week.

“If more gambling came we might have a lot of problem gambling and it would come back to haunt the city, as such. I think (the city) would end up having to spend more money on the social aspect, like looking after problem gamblers and the effects it has on families,” Marsh said.

Rexdale needs more permanent job options in the area, but Marsh doesn’t believe the low-paying jobs that would come with an entertainment complex outweigh the potential negatives that could come with a full-fledged casino.

“Something needs to come to the area, but the casino, I don’t think that is a development that would benefit the population that is here,” said Marsh, who works in Mississauga.

Peter D’Gama, a self-employed paralegal who moved to Etobicoke North six years ago, said the city should focus on bringing transportation, not gambling, to the area to attract development.

“If you get on building the LRT, we can bring condo development; we can bring retail development, all sorts of development. I don’t think we need a casino to be the catalyst for that.”

Woodbine president Nick Eaves has been involved with the company since 1994. He said the need in the community has been “very, very apparent” for the more than two decades he’s worked for the organization.

Woodbine is responsible for the employment of more than 7,500 people in Toronto. About 5,000 of those jobs are based on-site in Rexdale. That’s 10 per cent of the workforce in a community which has seen a 26 per cent decline in jobs over the last 10 years.

The company spearheads events in the community, and has created internships to give local young people experience in the working world but the need remains obvious, Eaves said.

“The benefits (from Woodbine’s community outreach) are evident, but there’s only so much we can do right now.”

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation are poised to choose an operator of expanded gambling in the GTA. With interest from other municipalities such as Pickering, Eaves told the Star last week it is now “critical” that the restrictions imposed on the racetrack by council in May 2013 are removed. Toronto council must give its approval by April 30.

Deputy Mayor Vince Crisanti, who is a “stone’s throw” away from Woodbine in neighbouring Ward 1 Etobicoke North, is leading the Woodbine file for Tory, after he suggested revisiting the vote as a way to create jobs and attract investment to Toronto’s northwest corner.

In a phone call with the Star Friday morning, Crisanti acknowledged that city has previously tried - and failed - to develop Woodbine’s land but said despite the preliminary nature of the discussions between the city and the racetrack operators, there is “always reason to hope” the latest negotiations will be successful in bringing some much needed liveliness to the area.

Faisal Hassan, a longtime community activist who recently became the federal NDP candidate in the riding, said given the concerns expressed by some of his fellow Etobicoke North residents, the city needs to consult the community before making any decisions.

“There are pros and cons to this,” Hassan said. “But ultimately the community should have the final say.”