Shifting the City’s Casino Debate to Talk about Economic Development & Local Democracy

By Paul Bocking, (Originally Published in May 2013 Issue of Bluffs Advocate)

Toronto’s year-long public debate appears to be coming to a conclusion on a series of proposals pushed by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission (OLG) to have one of several Las Vegas-based consortiums build and operate a major casino project downtown or in the GTA.  While reluctant to claim an early victory, the coalition of local activists behind No Casino Toronto appear to have the force of public opinion behind them, as well as the votes of a clear majority on City Council, with Rob and Doug Ford virtually the only remaining vocal proponents.  Several more, including many of Scarborough’s councilors, appear to personally favour casino development, but perhaps recognizing a losing battle, qualify their support and state they will follow the opinion of their constituents.

Like as was previously reported in regards to the City Budget, organized public consultation has been sparse in Scarborough, with only councilor Michael Thompson hosting a community meeting in this instance.  It was reportedly well attended by 60 of his  constituents at the Parkway Mall in central Scarborough.  New local activist group West Scarborough Community Action took it upon themselves to organize a forum at the Birchmount Bluffs Neighbourhood Centre for residents of southwest Scarborough as the casino debate was heating up at the end of March (full disclosure: I chaired the event).  Roughly 50 local residents attended and responded well to sitting in a large circle with panelists seated amongst the audience in an effort to elicit broader participation, departing from the usual lecture-style format.

“The city is in a ‘jobs crisis’.  [A casino] would be an opportunity for good quality jobs in construction and hospitality.” argued Mike Yorke, president of the Carpenters local union of Toronto and one of the panelists promoting casino development.  “We don’t want the Atlantic City model in Toronto,” he continued, referring to a cluster of casinos which ultimately took over that city’s downtown.  “Think more in terms of Barcelona or Melbourne,” where he emphasized, casinos are integrated into the urban environment.

“I’ve been to Melbourne, and you’re right Mike, the casino there is beautiful,” replied Steven Tufts, an economic geographer at York University studying the various casino proposals for Toronto and southern Ontario. “But Toronto is not Melbourne.  Melbourne benefits from its proximity to the enormously rising wealth of East Asia.  Toronto does not.  The market here is already saturated,” he argued.

Tufts was standing on friendly ground.  Residents appeared to overwhelmingly support his arguments, and those of Maureen Lynett, co-founder of No Casino Toronto, and University of Toronto-Scarborough student activist, Guled Arale.  While Lynett charged that a convenient casino would spawn addiction problems, Arale highlighted the shadow cast by the corporate casino sector over Toronto’s democratic process. “City Hall seems to have time to meet with crowds of lobbyists but not the residents of Toronto,” he charged, a point supported by Tufts who claimed that as many as 40 full time lobbyists from the competing casino proposals were walking the corridors of city hall.

The entire panel, pro and anti-casino agreed that the building of new convention-hosting facilities to increase Toronto’s capacity for hosting major conferences and trade shows was vital for the city’s economic development.  “But capital won’t invest without a casino anchoring the project.” concluded Lis Pimental, president of UNITE-HERE Local 75, which represents hotel workers.  “Then in this case, the state should be prepared to make the investment itself,” argued Tufts.  Citing the bailout by the Canadian and Ontario governments of General Motors during the 2008 recession, he asked, “If our governments can spend hundreds of millions bailing out the auto industry to reduce job losses, why can’t it spend some of this to support a sector which primarily employs women, new immigrants and people from racialized communities?”

Much of the publicly stated rationale for a casino development in Toronto are the claims that it would yield thousands of jobs for a city with an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent, now five years into the economic downturn that began in 2008.  What is less often stated is that the carrot of possible casino employment appeals to so many because there have been few major economic development projects at this scale in Toronto over the past several years, aside from the relentless construction of condos and office towers, especially downtown, but throughout the city, that appears to have defied the recession.

The Metrolinx construction of the Eglinton and Sheppard Avenue LRTs are massive upcoming projects.  Unlike a casino, they will be built with public money and their operation will actually improve people’s lives.  A coalition of labour and community organizations affiliated in the Toronto Community Benefits Network are preparing to present Metrolinx and the public with an agreement stipulating that construction and servicing tenders for this $8.4 billion project require hiring to be prioritized where possible in neighbourhoods with the highest rates of unemployment and social marginalization, and in areas adjacent to the construction project- clauses that could benefit Scarborough significantly.  If it’s successful, this agreement would help ensure the economic gains of the LRT construction benefit those who need it most.  It is a model that recognizes meeting human needs as a priority, rather than a distraction from earning a return on investment.

Tufts presents an interesting possibility.  As the old business adage goes, you have to spend money to make money.  But much of what has prolonged these difficult times is a reluctance of big business to invest on a large scale in a way that generates good paying jobs.  What if the City of Toronto partnered with the provincial government to put up the money to build a convention centre (minus casino), and recouped its investment by running the centre for a profit?  What are other ways we can think outside the economic box?