When the Bob Rae government was looking at opening the first casinos in Ontario in 1993, Pierre Burton asked in the Toronto Star, “Well, we started with just one lottery. How long before there’s a blackjack game in every community?”
In Peterborough, at least, that question has been answered: a casino will open in Peterborough at some point next year. While this plan has sparked a great deal of controversy here over the last few years, the reality is it wasn’t Peterborough’s decision to make – nor is it Peterborough that really stands to benefit.
The debate that’s unfolded here mirrors similar conversations that have been taking place all across the province, thanks to the Province’s ongoing “modernization” of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG), which began in 2012 as a plan to increase the provincial revenues from gambling.
Over the 10 years prior, casino gaming expanded rapidly in the United States, causing an eight-fold drop in profits at the casinos clustered on Ontario’s borders with the US. The Province is looking to make up that lost revenue by replacing American tourists with domestic gamblers – in particular, they’re looking to promote gambling amongst those under 45, who are unlikely to visit slots like those at Kawartha Downs, with both online gambling and an expanded network of privately-run casinos.
While this plan has sparked a great deal of controversy here over the last few years, the reality is it wasn’t Peterborough’s decision to make
The general locations for the casinos were chosen by the Province before any formal consultation with municipalities. Peterborough is designated “Gaming Zone E1,” which includes the City of Peterborough, small portions of Peterborough County surrounding city limits, and the existing slots at Kawartha Downs.
Pro-casino voices have pointed to Windsor and Niagara Falls as examples of cities where casinos have been a significant boon to the community. However, both of those cities have gaming industries largely based on tourism from the U.S., which isn’t likely to be the source of gamblers in Peterborough. Two other cities, Brantford and Thunder Bay, are more comparable case studies. Both of these cities got their casinos in 1999, as part of the last major expansion of casino gaming in Ontario.
Chris Friel, long-time mayor of Brantford, has been used by OLG as something of a poster boy for their modernization plans. He was quite outspoken in opposition to OLG’s plans, sharing concerns with many residents that a casino would increase crime and addiction, and deliver a fatal blow to an already-struggling downtown. However, 16 years later, he’s equally outspoken to say that hasn’t been the case: crime and addiction haven’t significantly worsened, and the casino contributes close to $4 million each year to the city’s coffers. While the casino hasn’t directly led to the economic revitalization that was hoped for, it’s helped bankroll many other revitalization projects in Brantford over the years.
In Thunder Bay, on the other hand, things are a bit more mixed. The casino there, located downtown, has spurred other investment in the area – a fact that Peterborough’s DBIA raised as a part of their case for having any casino here located downtown – and, like in Brantford, the casino contributes millions each year to the city’s budget. However, unlike in Brantford, this revenue isn’t coming from outside of the community. A 2005 Ministry of Health study found that only one in ten gamblers at the Thunder Bay casino come from outside of the city. For that reason, that study estimated that the casino had a significant negative financial impact on the community as a whole.
While some cities in Ontario have had positive experiences hosting casinos, one can’t assume that experience will be the same in Peterborough. Most casinos built to date in Ontario that bring a benefit to their community do so by bringing in gamblers from other cities, but will that be the case in Peterborough?
That’s what Council is betting on, and no one will know for sure until the casino is up and running, but it seems like wishful thinking. In a few years, there will be casinos all across Ontario, including ones in Belleville, the Kingston area, and the Greater Toronto Area. To plan to use gambling as a driver of economic development here is to assume that people elsewhere in the province will prefer Peterborough as a destination over the other 28 casino destinations, and that this will make up for the money lost by local patrons of the casino.
Most casinos built to date in Ontario that bring a benefit to their community do so by bringing in gamblers from other cities, but will that be the case in Peterborough?
With Cavan-Monaghan willing to host a casino at the existing Kawartha Downs site, the question that faced Peterborough City Council was never really about having a casino in the Peterborough area, but rather whether, as a municipality, we wanted a piece of the action. The Province is looking to increase their income from gambling by about a billion dollars by 2018, and their plan includes getting more people in Peterborough to gamble with or without the city’s involvement.
In this context, it wasn’t unreasonable for Council to consent to the casino plan – but to present it as an economic development opportunity is disingenuous. Instead, it’s an opportunity for the city to get some small benefit from a plan that’s designed to take a whole lot of money out of our community.