Supporters of a downtown casino claim it would reduce the city’s budget gap, but they disregard where that money is really coming from.
If you want to know where the profits from gambling—or “gaming,” as our governments now call it—come from, you should spend some time working in a bingo hall. I did, for a few years, selling tickets and filling out paperwork on Sunday nights on behalf of a worthy local housing charity.
There is very little laughter in a bingo hall, and very little fun. What bingo halls have is lots of regular customers who come in several times a week and sit for hours silently and robotically dabbing numbers; often, they leave their grocery money behind. All bingo sessions in Toronto are held for the benefit of worthy charities, which end up depending on the money. But that money comes from a sad, desperate place: It’s provided by gamblers not out of a sense of benevolence, but out of compulsion. Charity volunteers can rationalize taking the money in a number of ways, but they have to confront themselves with the truth that the charitable good they do is balanced by the gambling harm they help inflict.
There’s a broader point here, as Toronto city council continues deliberating whether or not to host a large-scale casino downtown, as the provincial government has requested. The city manager’s report on the issue, released this week, guesses at the revenue the city government could gain from a casino: If a gambling resort were set up at Exhibition Place, a best-case scenario could see the city get as much as $250 million in lease payments, as well as $195 million per year in fees and taxes.
The report says it “must be noted” that the money could eliminate the city’s famous budget gap—the structural deficit Toronto faces every year at the start of budget season. In addition, it predicts that whoever builds the casino might pay a premium to speed transit construction, among other possible benefits. These are huge jackpot stakes being offered here, especially considering our recent bitter budget and transit battles.
In considering the downsides, the report offers pages of mitigating rationalizations: casinos a short drive away already take a lot of money from gamblers who live in Toronto; a casino on our border in Mississauga or Vaughan would cause almost as many problems for Toronto as one inside the city, and would offer none of the revenue or control; “high-rolling” tourists who would otherwise shun the city will come and shower us with their wagering dollars. Did we mention the potential profits? Up to $400 million in gambling revenue from international tourists (to go alongside $750 million from Torontonians and half a billion from our Ontario neighbours).
It’s fair, I think, to be skeptical about the numbers. Even the city manager’s report states repeatedly that projections are very difficult because there is no specific proposal to evaluate. And then there is a “Problem Gambling” section—two pages in the 28-page report—which warns that “a casino anywhere in the GTA will likely increase problem gambling and associated health risks for Toronto residents,” and that those risks include suicide, family breakdown, and “compromised child development.”
But those provisos in the report seem like a gambler acknowledging the long odds and likely losses before placing a bet—an obligatory nod to messy reality, followed immediately by further revelry about the prize money and how it could be spent.
In a lot of ways, the ethical horse has long left our barn when it comes to gambling: Our governments run or collaborate with lotteries, a sports betting system, charity bingos, racetracks, slots—and our mayor and city councillors participate in a football pool. If people want to gamble, we’ll not only let them, we’ll take their money, too.
It’s possible a big casino could provide a lot of revenue. But let’s not pretend the money comes from some happy place (High rollers! Tourists! Gamers!). It comes—three quarters of a billion dollars of it, according to the report—from our neighbours, those either too innumerate to figure out the odds, too desperate to care about them, or too in the thrall of addiction to care about anything at all. Gambling is a sad, desperate source of money, as every charity bingo volunteer knows. That we are talking about it as a potential solution to the city’s budget struggles is just as desperate, and in many ways even sadder.