It’s been reported by several sources that the province of Ontario is ready to go full force into gambling. Right now there are full option casinos in Windsor, Niagara Falls and Orillia as well as some smaller charity and native casinos in other cities. Moreover each racetrack in Ontario offers slots. Ontario also offers lotteries including a sports lottery that requires picking at least 3 games and there are at least a dozen racetracks.
While that list may seem ample to most American gambling pundits Ontario is looking for more and the initial target is the Greater Toronto Area. Paul Godfrey, the man who brought the Blue Jays to Toronto and who is now in charge of Ontario Lottery and Gaming (OLG) was clear that he believed a Toronto casino could create up to 20,000 jobs as well as enticing more tourism. Expectations are that the casino will likely be built at the lakefront, now that Ontario Place has been set for closure, although other venues in the downtown corps are possible. Ontario is also finishing plans to create an online gambling site which will allow residents to bet on poker, slots and lotteries and there are plans to involve large box stores to help promote the gambling product.
I spoke to a developer from Toronto who seems quite aware of the plans and he informed me that the downtown Toronto casino is just the start. If all goes according to plan, (city council needs to approve the casino and development and not surprisingly some on the council are greatly opposed), then according to the developer the casino and possibly a large 5 star hotel could be built within 5 years. Then the province has its eye on other GTA locations for further development. In the west end of the city, Woodbine Racetrack has a large parcel of land and is quite interesting in developing a mega entertainment complex of which a casino and luxury hotel could be part of the plans. And in the East end, Ajax Downs, which has just undergone a major renovation, has room to build a major casino. Again Ajax city council would have to approve the plan.
Not surprisingly, gambling opponents who worry about issues like compulsive gambling, suicides, crime and prostitution are condemning the idea but Godfrey suggests that these opponents need to take their heads out of the sand since Ontarians are gambling anyways. But rather than seeing the money go offshore or to Las Vegas or Atlantic City, the money could stay in Ontario and generate over $1 billion in revenue which could be used for health, education and amateur sports (which is traditionally where the money from gambling has gone) as well as for infrastructure. Godfrey also challenged a councilor who vehemently opposed the idea to prove where cities have seen a dramatic increase in crime and prostitution just because a casino has gone up. In fact Godfrey pointed cities that recently built casinos where those concerns have not materialized. Godfrey and many gambling proponents suggest that you can’t compare 2012 to the dirty thirties.
The Ontario government could also be looking to Woodbine, Ajax Downs and other racetracks for another reason. It was recently announced in a budget that the racetracks, which get a percentage of the slots revenue run out of their facility will likely lose those revenues. The government calls it a subsidy but the racetracks say it’s payment for allowing the slots to run from their operation. It was also an agreement reached by the racetracks and the government over a decade ago. Slots bring in quite a bit of revenue but clearly a full casino would bring in much more and Godfrey stated that the government is looking at decentralizing OLG to allow for some private ownership. Currently the law requires that the province own and operate all gambling but Casino Windsor is partially owned and managed by Caesar’s and Casino Rama is managed by Penn National. So it’s not out of the question that a casino at say Woodbine or Mohawk racetrack could be partially owned and managed by Woodbine Entertainment to make up for lost slots revenue. Moreover, if and when the federal law prohibiting single game sports betting is overturned in the next few months, Woodbine and other pari-mutuel entities could be allowed to offer sports betting as an add on feature to horse racing, as is done in the UK and Australia. In fact Woodbine has just expanded its horse racing offers to allow betting into the UK and South African totes which allows Ontario horse bettors to wager up to 18 hours every day.
One issue not discussed but which will likely be brought forth at some point is the possibility of offering the product outside of Ontario. No doubt inter-provincial poker networks will at some point be created between BC, Quebec and Ontario but the Ontario government likely has its eye south of the border. As it stands the Canadian government won’t challenge U.S. law by allowing Americans to wager at Canadian gambling sites but if the UIGEA is amended or if remote gambling becomes rampant in the U.S. don’t be surprised to see Canadian gambling sites change their stance. One must remember that the U.S. already lost to Antigua at the WTO and while the USTR stated it would rewrite its commitments on gambling, to date it hasn’t. And Canada was one of the countries that asked for compensation as a result of being harmed by the decision to rewrite the commitments. If the U.S. does decide to offer interstate gambling, as is almost a certainty now, there is a very good chance the U.S. government will open the market to select countries of which Canada could very well be one. After all, the USTR wouldn’t have a leg to stand on if the issue was brought back to the WTO and if poker networks were already operating throughout the U.S. there would be no fear of real competition from other countries but allowing other countries to compete would finally kill the WTO case.
Toronto could very well become Las Vegas North in the next few years and considering the lack of snow and warm temperatures the last 2 winters, the city could very well be more like Las Vegas than most know.