As Metro Vancouver rejects large-scale casinos, Toronto eyes gaming’s jobs, revenues

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Even without a final decision developers are lining up to build a casino in Toronto. Steven D'Souza reports.

Casinos create a kind of devil's bargain for the the communities that host them: In return for an often lucrative revenue stream and source of employment, they accept the possibility that crime related to gaming may rise, traffic will increase and that it may claim some gambling addicts as social victims.

Apparently the people of Surrey, B.C., the sprawling suburb east of Vancouver, wasn't prepared to sign on to a deal like that.

The chief executive officer of the Crown-owned B.C. Lottery Corp., Michael Graydon, says he was "dumbfounded" Surrey's mayor and city council rejected an application to license a casino as part of a new luxury hotel and convention centre complex, the Globe and Mail reports.

"Something transpired in the last few days and I don’t know what,” Graydon told the Globe.

Graydon's surprise seems rooted in his sense that Surrey's civic leaders favoured the Gateway Casinos proposal, to be located on Highway 99 just north of the Canada-U.S. border.

But council voted 5-4 against the project at 2 a.m. Saturday after a marathon hearing that featured heavy grassroots opposition.

“We thought we had the right location in regards to optimizing that opportunity and we thought we had the right location in terms of meeting the concerns of Surrey," Graydon told the Vancouver Sun. "That’s the thing that befuddles us more than anything."

Graydon said the corporation will now look at other suburban sites, including land owned by First Nations near the Tsawwassen ferry terminal.

"The market is there and the opportunity is there and we are quite keen to develop it if there are municipalities or First Nations that are keen to be partners.”

Graydon said he was disappointed Mayor Dianne Watts now says she's had concerns about the proposal as far back as last fall, the Globe reports, something he didn't know until he saw her comments in a newspaper story.

“If she truthfully had issues, I would have thought she had enough respect for Gateway to raise those issues then," he said.

Watts, an immensely popular three-term mayor last year who turned down an opportunity to become leader of the governing B.C. Liberal party, said when land for the project was rezoned three years ago, the city had always said the casino component of the complex might not get the green light.

She said the developer assured council at the time omitting the casino would not be a "deal-breaker," the Globe reports.

In the end, city council had to respond to public sentiment, she said.

“What’s the point of going to a public hearing if you’re not going to listen? For me personally, it was a very difficult decision," said Watts.

It's the second time in less than three years the provincial lottery corporation and its business partners have been rebuffed on a proposed large-scale casino development.

On April 11, Vancouver city council rejected plans by corporation and a developer for a $500-million casino expansion on downtown land near B.C. Place Stadium, not far from an existing smaller casino on the former Expo 86 World's Fair site, the Sun noted. It opted to approve moving the current facility to the new site.

Graydon observed the Surrey project was rejected with a fraction of the opposition the Vancouver casino expansion had, the Globe said.

Contrast Surrey and Vancouver responses to casino proposals with what's happening in Toronto, where Mayor (for now) Rob Ford and his supporters are itching to build a casino in the city.

[Related: The Toronto casino debate: The devil is in the details]

MGM Resorts International is in the early stages of promoting a $1-billion project, perhaps on the lakefront site of the Canadian National Exhibition grounds. The Las Vegas Sands Corp. is also floating a casino proposal for Toronto.

MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren told the Economic Club of Canada the proposed "integrated resort" would feature Cirque du Soleil as its centrepiece (perhaps he missed the news last week that Cirque is laying off 400 people in the wake of falling attendance and indifferently received new shows).

“I can tell you that we’re not interested in building a box," Murren told the Toronto business audience, according to the Toronto Sun.

"We don’t operate slots at tracks. That’s not what we do. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not going to bring one new international tourist to Toronto.”

City planners are preparing a report on the project based on public consultation, the Sun said. Murren said he met previously with Ford.

“He was supportive of gaming,” Murren said.

Ford, who is awaiting the results of his of a conflict-of-interest ruling that could cost him his job, told the audience of his weekly radio show Sunday that he believes he already knows what Torontonians think about hosting a big casino.

“I have a pretty good feeling of what they want out there,” Ford said, according to the Toronto Star. “How can people say no to this?”

His brother Doug, who sits on council and co-hosts the radio program, added that a casino project is "all about creating jobs, folks."

Supporters and opponents have until the end of this week to voice their opinions. About 200 people crowded into a library meeting room Saturday, with most opposed to the idea. A smaller number were in favour, the Star said, but some seemed resigned to the prospect that cash-starved Toronto couldn't turn away a major prospective employer.

“It’s a done deal,” said Mary Anne Kowalchuck, a retired teacher. “They’re going to build it no matter what we say.”