A Toronto casino has become controversial, but Paul Godfrey wants people to trust him when he says it will be good for the city.
After all, Godfrey reminded Agincourt residents at a meeting Wednesday, Jan. 30, he was chairman of the former Metropolitan Toronto government, a publisher, a media executive and president of the Toronto Blue Jays before Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty asked him to run the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation.
And at this stage, “why would I want to do something to bring something awful to the city?” he asked at L’Amoreaux Collegiate.
“I don’t want to make this the one black mark on my life,” Godfrey added. “I take pride in what I do.”
Charged with carrying out a “modernization” plan to boost OLG’s $2 billion-a-year take for the provincial coffers by $1.3 billion, Godfrey said he thinks a decision on a downtown casino would be decided at Toronto Council “by probably one or two votes either way.”
If councillors say yes, he said, the city gets $2-3 billion in investment, 6,000 construction jobs for three years and 12,000 “fairly well-paying” jobs after that.
Convention tourism will triple to 1.1 million people a year, Godfrey said. “People from the Far East will come to Toronto in droves.”
The exact hosting fee, $50 million to $100 million, depends on the project’s size, he said, but the city will have a final say on location and design. If the city and operator can’t agree, he’ll try to mediate.
Godfrey said he’d spend the money on infrastructure projects “you can point to afterwards,” such as fixing the Gardiner Expressway or building a downtown relief subway line.
If council votes against the idea, “we’ll start talking to municipalities that ring Toronto,” said Godfrey, though a casino in Markham, Mississauga or Vaughan would be built for $1 billion, without convention facilities. Large operators want to be downtown for the same reason sports stadiums and major hotels do, he said.
Godfrey acknowledged OLG’s casinos in Niagara Falls and Windsor are in decline. In 2001, they made $800 million but in 2011 only $100 million, a dramatic dip due to casinos on the U.S. side, a higher Canadian dollar, and the need for Americans to have passports to visit Canada.
Godfrey didn’t deny there would be some “cannibalization” – a 15 to 20 per cent loss at Casino Rama near Orillia and Fallsview in Niagara Falls if a downtown Toronto casino is built.
The province will sell its existing casinos, which are in need of $1 billion in facelifts, then let the private sector rebuild them and simply “take a slice off the top,” he said.
Godfrey said gambling’s not his cup of tea and he never tries it when he vacations in Las Vegas with his sons. Still, he said, “the opera’s not for everybody, yet we build opera halls.”
He later said he thought an open letter by ex-Toronto mayors David Crombie, Art Eggleton and John Sewell warning city residents to “beware the sales pitch” on casinos contained errors. The three men argued gambling “preys on the poor” and cited U.S. studies suggesting casinos bring communities $3 in costs for every $1 in benefits.
Godfrey said he’d invite the ex-mayors to examine independent studies at OLG showing different results.
Wednesday’s meeting was co-hosted by Scarborough-Agincourt Councillor Mike Del Grande, Soo Wong, the local MPP and Sam Sotiropoulos, the area’s public school trustee, who said he and some colleagues on Toronto’s district public board are interested in sharing the city’s casino revenue.
Wong said her Liberal riding association asked last October for Godfrey to speak in Agincourt.
Del Grande said he had been “back and forth” on the issue, but he wants to be swayed by rational arguments, not emotional ones. “I don’t think governments should earn income from gambling,” he said, but added money is already leaving the city through online gambling.
Some in the audience were skeptical about OLG’s “modernization” plans and wondered why there couldn’t be a city-wide referendum on casinos.
Murray Hedges, however, said he has visited around 40 Canadian and U.S. casinos.
“What I see is thousands and thousands of seniors enjoying themselves,” he said, adding though he knows two families that have suffered because of gambling, a casino visit is a thrill for seniors, and for some their only outing each month.
Later, though, Hedges said he probably wouldn’t go to a downtown casino because he doesn’t want to pay a big parking fee or take transit. “I am going to go to a casino where I can drive and there’s all sorts of free parking,” he said.