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Council approves expanded gambling at Woodbine Racetrack

Councillors voted Wednesday in favour of the additions to the track located in Rexdale, which has seen a 26 per cent decline in employment in the last decade.
July 8, 2015
By Betsy Powell

City council has backed a plan to allow a major casino at the Woodbine Racetrack, two years after banning further expansion on the site and also rejecting a similar gaming facility in downtown Toronto.

After an all-day debate focusing on the potential benefits - job creation and development - and gambling’s ugly side - council voted 25-19 to support expanded gaming at Woodbine, already home to 2,700 slot machines.

Mayor John Tory, a strong proponent of the plan, said while the vote means council has voted for jobs, he doesn’t diminish concerns about problem gamblers, who generate a disproportionately high share of slot-machine and table-game revenue.

“My support for taking this proposition to the next stage does, however, arise out of a profound determination that I have to see more jobs become available in the northwest corner of the city, an area that has been starved for jobs and opportunity for a long, long time,” Tory said before the vote early Wednesday evening.

The racetrack is located in Rexdale, which has seen a 26 per cent decline in employment in the last decade.

Opponents included Councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam and Councillor Raymond Cho, who shared personal stories of family members with gambling addictions.

Three members of Tory’s hand-picked executive committee - Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong, Paul Ainslie and James Pasternak - also voted against expansion.

Several councillors warned their colleagues that approving expanded gambling at Woodbine could lead to job losses elsewhere in Toronto’s hospitality and leisure industry.

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. has proposed increasing the number of slot machines to 5,000 - and adding 120 gaming tables, such as blackjack, craps and roulette. OLG is conducting a search for an operator, which will have to comply with a long-list of conditions set down by council.

Vince Crisanti, one of Tory’s deputy mayors and the councillor for Ward 1 Etobicoke North, was leading the Woodbine file for Tory. He said he is “ecstatic” with the result of the vote.

“We have over 700 acres that has been sitting underdeveloped forever. This is the opportunity and the catalyst that will take it to new levels.”

Councillor Rob Ford, who represents Etobicoke North’s Ward 2, said he just wanted council to get “on with it” and create jobs in this “very challenging area.” The racetrack is in his ward.

Ford acknowledged gambling can escalate into an addiction for some, but his own experience with substance abuse demonstrates how firm resolve can curb addictive behaviour.

“There are problems (with gambling,) but then you have problems with alcohol, there’s problems with cigarettes, there’s problems with food, you’ve got to have control in life,” said Ford. He is slowing returning to work after cancer surgery in May.

“If you’re going to go and live life to excess in any one thing, it’s going to have a negative impact, but anything in moderation, I don’t think is that bad.” The former mayor said he has been sober for a year.

Jim Lawson, CEO of Woodbine Entertainment Group, said council’s decision is a big boost to the horse racing industry across the province and is expected to be a catalyst for expansion and development.

“This is a real trigger for us moving ahead with additional hospitality and entertainment uses on the Woodbine lands, which are quite distinct from the OLG expansion.”

Councillor Mike Layton, one of city hall’s most vocal critics of gambling expansion, said he is disappointed council didn’t find a more “creative” approach to stimulating job growth in “one of the most important employment districts in the country.”

He suggested the racetrack lands could be turned into a hub for the tech industry, a manufacturing centre or a logistics and shipping space.

“Let’s invest in those sectors, the ones that have good jobs, that add to the economy, not take money out of it.”

Ford led the unsuccessful charge for downtown and Woodbine casinos after the failure of Woodbine Live!, a shopping and entertainment complex proposed for the site by a Baltimore-based developer.

Woodbine Live! never materialized after the recession hit in 2007-2008.

OLG has said that as part of its “modernization” process, it will only consider expanded or new gaming facilities in municipalities that consent.

The OLG estimates that expanded gaming could generate at least $805.4 million in new revenue annually. That could pump an additional $7 million to $11 million into city coffers, for a total of $22.5 million to $26.5 million from Woodbine.