As city council’s top committee prepares to consider on April 15 whether Toronto should allow a mega-casino to be built downtown, the final bits of information that will inform deliberations remain something of a puzzle. The mayor’s position, outlined in an open letter posted earlier this week, is predictably boosterish, based on the fantastical wish that there’s free money in them thar slot machines that will somehow build subways.
Never mind that even the most optimistically delusional figure—please do not call it an “estimate,” since it’s a complete fabrication—for Toronto’s revenue, if we built one of the largest casinos in the world, would still only cover the cost of half a kilometre of subway.
Anyhow, subways don’t figure into the more credible report, from city manager Joe Pennachetti, but the same absurd revenue figure—$148 million per year—does. Which is strange. In fact, if you look closely, it’s easy to figure out that what Pennachetti is saying doesn’t match the evidence he’s presenting.
The first substantial sentence of the first recommendation in the report says, “The city manager recommends that…city council consent to supporting the establishment of a new casino gaming site…within the Exhibition Place or downtown core study areas….” Which is enough for some councillors looking for the cherries to line up: Within minutes of the report’s release, councillor Michael Thompson was crowing that the city manager supported a casino.
In contrast, anyone who reads the rest of the report, and especially anyone who delves into the background documents attached to it, can plainly see that the Ontario Lottery and Gaming (OLG) corporation’s casino plans spell disaster for the city.
Sure, Pennachetti seems to give his thumbs up to the casino. But he’s also suggested 43 conditions that should be attached to that support—conditions so fantastical and so far removed from what the OLG has proposed as to represent an outright rejection of what the province is selling. For example, planning staff wants the casino to be less than half the size, with less than half the parking, and less than one-third the slot machines than were originally proposed. Meanwhile, Pennachetti suggests that even with the smaller facility, the city should be in for $100 million per year minimum, and likely closer to $150 million. This, despite the OLG’s proposed city revenue of $50 million (and up to $100 million) per year.
How’s that? Well, our man Joe is suggesting that—even though the premier has clearly said Toronto will get no special deal—our gambling revenue should be 1,000 per cent higher than what the OLG currently gives to other cities.
Things get weirder: Planning staff clearly suggests that the casino, heavy as it is on slots, would mostly attract marks—ahem, “customers”—from the GTA, not the international tourists we’d anticipated. They further note the casino would not “advance Toronto’s national and international position,” and that it poses a threat to the character and urban fabric of an area that is “one of the most successful downtowns in North America.” Nonetheless, staff offers that if there’s going to be a casino, there are some ways—Pennachetti’s 43 conditions—to make it less of a disaster than it would be.
On that basis we get, strangely, a document that suggests the answer is “Yes, if…,” rather than the obvious conclusion of “No way. But if we have no choice…” The problem with the former approach is that when the answer is “Yes, if…,” you’ve already said yes. All the ifs can be negotiated away and forgotten—which is almost guaranteed in this situation, since the city has absolutely no mechanism by which to enforce its conditions on the OLG.
Rob Ford has long shown the province’s hucksters that he really wants this casino, regardless of the price, and he’ll combine that enthusiasm with a wish list of fantasyland items we should get in return.
Pennachetti’s report shows just how absurd that list of items is, if you read all the fine print. But by presenting the whole thing as a “Yes if…” kind of deal, it’s still a recipe for getting fleeced. We can only hope the city councillors making the decision read beyond page one.