Corp Comm Connects

Chris Selley: Toronto council can score only a symbolic blow against gambling — and cost hundreds of jobs
July 2, 2015
Chris Selley

Mayor John Tory’s Executive Committee approved “expanded gaming” at Woodbine late on Canada Day Eve, subject, it hopes, to myriad conditions guaranteeing jobs and revenue and the provision of non-“gaming”-related entertainment.

Eventually, Woodbine Entertainment Group, the Ontario Lottery & Gaming Corp. (OLG) and Tory believe, the enormous undeveloped site will be home to hotels, restaurants, convention space and stages on which Carrot Top and the J. Geils Band can perform.

While we wait, if city council approves next week, we might see as many as 2,000 more “electronic gaming machines” (EGMs) in Rexdale, and as many as 2,400 “live gaming positions,” which is to say 300 tables with eight seats at each. City staff estimate that development would produce 400 new “direct gaming jobs,” 300 “indirect and induced jobs,” and 625 person years of construction jobs.

That’s no small thing in a community where unemployment and poverty are above the city average. Polling by Ipsos in May found just 16 per cent of residents opposed “expanding gaming at Woodbine Racetrack,” whereas 50 per cent supported it and 33 per cent had “mixed feelings.”

Mixed feelings are appropriate. “Gaming” means gambling, just in case there’s any confusion: wagering on games of chance that are designed resolutely to favour the house. The executive committee having spent the morning approving an anti-poverty strategy, there was a certain irony in it later endorsing what is, antiseptic euphemisms aside, a regressive tax on the poor.

A 2013 study funded by the Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre (OPGRC) found 36 per cent  of self-identified problem gamblers in the province had income under $20,000, versus 23 per cent of the general population. And a staff report before the executive neatly explained the moral dimension of the issue: research suggests there aren’t many problem gamblers in Ontario — perhaps one or two per cent of the population — and their numbers are declining. “Nevertheless, recent estimates indicate that Ontario problem gamblers currently account for 24 per cent of the revenue from government-sponsored gambling.”

That is, as the report suggests, “problematic.” And it’s hard to miss the fact that governments tend to embrace this revenue stream most enthusiastically at times of fiscal emergency born of their own problem gambling. The OLG’s modernization plan, under which gambling facilities are being competitively outsourced, is first and foremost a revenue-creation plan for Queen’s Park. And it may well help make a few people’s lives significantly worse.

All that said, the ship of moral purity has sailed. The Interprovincial Lottery Corp. was formed in 1976. There have been slot machines, which are famously addictive, at Woodbine for 15 years. And with its $2.1 billion remittance to the province in 2014, the OLG is even more important to the treasury than the Liquor Control Board of Ontario — another government business enterprise purveying an addictive, potentially life-destroying product for profit.

The OLG intends to expand gambling in the Greater Toronto Area and there are municipalities here willing to host it — some of them just as convenient to many Torontonians as Woodbine. City council can only score a symbolic blow against that. It could boast of being the only casino-free big city in the country, Coun. Joe Mihevc, chairman of the anti-gambling board of health, suggested to the executive committee.

As motivational speaker Matt Foley might say, that and a nickel will buy Rexdale a hot cup of jack squat. Even if councillors could strike a mighty blow against gambling in the GTA, they would need to weigh that against the jobs the Woodbine plan will create. As they can’t, the burden is greater. And anti-gambling councillors haven’t shouldered it well.

“Niagara Falls and Windsor did not develop in an economically sustainable and family-friendly way after they got casinos,” Mihevc told the Toronto Star. “Walk around there — the jobs are cash-your-cheque and exotic-dancer type jobs. They are frankly not going to lead to the long-term prosperity of Rexdale.”

“The fact is it’s a declining industry, and these are not good jobs,” Coun. Joe Cressy sniffed Tuesday.

Well we can’t all be city councillors, can we? Caesars Windsor employs nearly 3,000 people, the Niagara casinos nearly 4,000 — none of them strippers. Woodbine as it stands employs 10 per cent of the Rexdale population, most in unionized jobs and not all in unskilled grunt work. People need to eat; people have to cook the food. If anything like the entertainment destination vision comes to pass, you’re looking at all kinds of great jobs.

“It’s a pretty narrow view,” Woodbine chief executive Jim Lawson said in an interview of the Mihevc-Cressy faction.

“We’ve lost so many manufacturing jobs. And there’s so many (potential) good jobs (at Woodbine): hotel manager, restaurant manager, shift managers. These are all highly skilled people.”

Indeed. Gambling is a rotten way for governments to make money, if you ask me. But that’s the province we live in. As such it would take some balls to look Woodbine, and its employees, both extant and potential, in the eye and tell them they can’t partner with Queen’s Park to provide a perfectly legal product on private land. Council should dismount its high horse and let this happen.