Should we allow a casino, or some casinos, at Exhibition Place? I don’t think it’s a terrible idea. We already have one operating there, and the city hasn’t gone to ruin. In fact, a permanent, more high-profile gambling destination at that location could only improve things.
The Toronto Star reported late last week that American operators (including MGM, Caesars, and the Las Vegas Sands) competing to put a casino in Toronto have their eyes on Exhibition Place, and they may be willing to fund the proposed redevelopment of Ontario Place in order to get permission to move ahead.
The current Exhibition Place casino is temporary, and operates each year from the end of July until Labour Day. I went to check it out; ironically, it’s in the Better Living Centre. When the CNE isn’t up and running, Exhibition Place is a barren wasteland, a vast expanse of parking lots dotted by huge, locked-up buildings. This seasonal casino is equally uninspiring: People silently crowd tables in the supermarket-sized, bare-walled warehouse, the muffled sounds of clinking chips and quiet desperation evaporating into the exposed pipes under the high ceilings.
It’s a scene that will be familiar to anyone who has spent time at one of Toronto’s eight off-track betting parlours, 12 bingo halls, or the slots room at Woodbine—a crowd concentrating intently and interacting with each other only briefly and intermittently, every so often wrinkling their brows as they hand over another $300 or $400 for chips when they run out.
It’s easy for the gamblers to lose a lot of money very quickly. At most tables, they might be wagering $50–$100 per hand, depending on the card game. And people do lose a lot of money. That’s the nature of gambling.
It’s sad and terrible, but it’s also a reality. Torontonians who want to gamble already have lots of options with the existing bingo and horseracing rooms, the temporary and out-of-town casinos, and countless websites. As with pretty much every vice, prohibition is both impossible and unhelpful.
As Stephen Marche argued in Toronto Life last month, the worst option would be to construct more dumpy neighbourhood venues for problem gamblers to waste away in quietly. If we’re going to have gambling here, we might as well turn it into a municipal asset. This is what we’ve done with alcohol: As much as bars enable addiction, drunk driving, loutish behaviour, and violence, we ensure that they contribute to the culture of the city.
If we’re going to have a casino, Exhibition Place is just as good as any downtown location. If the fear is that a casino will dominate the neighbourhood where it’s located, that’s no problem since there’s really no neighbourhood at all at the Ex. It’s fairly central, but for most of the year it sits empty. The area is home to a convention centre, trade-fair halls, and pro sports stadiums—perfect for a dedicated tourist attraction.
This is one place in the city where a big, Vegas-style casino might actually stimulate activity. A large casino-hotel that hosted regular concerts would generate business for the convention centres and the few destination restaurants and nightclubs nearby. The prime lakefront areas of the Port Lands and Ontario Place would remain free for mixed-use development, including residences and parkland. And since the city owns and operates the land, it could benefit from casinos by charging rent—traditionally, the absence of potential revenue for the municipal government (which has to deal with the problems a casino creates) is one of the standard complaints against establishing them.
Gambling creates problems: It ruins lives through addiction, may increase crime, and despite promises of tourism-related booms, casinos seldom help the local economy. But if we’re going to have more legal gambling facilities in Toronto, a high-profile destination casino and entertainment venue at Exhibition Place could be less damaging than some of the alternatives. And unless you own one, that’s as close to winning as you’ll ever get with a casino.*
CORRECTION, AUGUST 8, 2012: The original version of this article featured an incomplete edit with a different last sentence; the text has been updated.