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A casino in Rexdale? It’s already there
Expansion of the Woodbine Racetrack site and its current gaming might do more good than harm.
March 18, 2015
By Edward Keenan

I went out to Rexdale this week to consider the possibility of the city allowing construction of a casino there. What I found is that there is already a casino there.

At Woodbine Racetrack, you can watch horses run a few times a week, sure, and you can bet on those races. You can also bet on live races from around the world, shown at Woodbine on television screens.

But that’s all a bit of sideline to the slot room - open 24 hours a day, seven days a week in fine Las Vegas tradition - where 3,000 machines keep people inserting twenties and punching buttons as servers bring them complimentary coffee and soda (by comparison, Casino Niagara has about 1,500 slot machines, Casino Rama has about 2,500, the Montreal Casino has about 3,200, while Atlantic City’s Caesars resort has 3,400).

Officially there are no table games (such as blackjack and roulette), but gamblers at Woodbine can play video versions of all those games, including in the “virtual poker room,” where there are 11 tables of electronic Hold ’Em.

When I was there this week on Tuesday in the middle of the afternoon, the room was fairly crowded. I turned $20 into $270 in about 15 minutes at a two-cent slot machine (word to the wise: you wind up betting more than two cents per spin), and then turned that into $0 in another 15 minutes. A woman down the row from me urged me to play the machine she’d been playing - after dumping $800 into it that day, she was out of money but was sure it was due to pay off big.

So yes, there is already a fairly massive gambling operation in Rexdale, something to keep in mind this spring when city council is likely to reconsider the question of whether to invite the province to expand the operation to include with table games, hotels, theatres and the other tourist trappings of destination casino resorts. The city voted in spring 2013 to ban expansion. But there are a lot of reasons to reconsider.

What we have now is a big-box machine to suck the money out of the wallets of local gamblers. It offers all the drawbacks of a casino resort with none of the real benefits. The social problems of compulsive gambling are already present. The acres of parking required for a large gambling operation are already there.

The fact that casinos famously suck dollars into themselves without creating spin-off economic activity for the surrounding area is less of a concern in the sprawling industrial lands of the existing racetrack area than it would be in an established urban business village.

All the reasons, in other words, that people (including me) objected to a mega-casino downtown either don’t really apply to the Woodbine site, or apply equally to the gambling operation that has already existed there since 1953.

If it were expanded to include more restaurants and live entertainment options - made into a proper resort - Woodbine might be well positioned by its location to pick up tourist business from the surrounding airport hotels and convention centres, and could attract convention and trade show business to those places, too.

The province plans to put an expanded gambling operation somewhere in the GTA. The tax revenue and jobs will go to a municipality willing to host it. When city council rejected the idea of a downtown Toronto site in 2013, they had good reasons to do so, but then - partly as a simple act of defiance against Rob Ford - they also threw out the idea of expanding Woodbine.

We already have a massive casino in Rexdale at Woodbine. Most of the drawbacks are ones we’re already suffering.

Allowing the province to expand the site into a full-on resort wouldn’t be an economic development silver bullet for the neighbourhood (as some hope it would be), and it wouldn’t completely alleviate the drawbacks the existing casino already has. But it might offer some significant benefits to go with them.