Stephen Marche: the case for a downtown gambling palace at Ontario Place

Stephen Marche: the case for a downtown gambling palace at Ontario Place

A Toronto casino is inevitable. Will it be an ugly box built where nobody can see it, or a glorious five-star island of fun?

Viva Las Ontario Place
(Images: GetStock and iStock) 

“Toronto the Good” is an epithet applied only by those with a passing familiarity with the city. In truth, Toronto is a place where you can indulge your vices with ease and comfort and the relative security that you’ll be left alone with your degradation. Valerie Scott, legal coordinator for the lobby group Sex Professionals of Canada, recently explained to reporters that Torontonians shouldn’t worry about a sudden explosion of brothels after a ruling that legalizes bawdy houses: “There have been brothels in practically every condo and apartment building in Toronto. People have no idea they exist, we are so discreet.” Toronto’s virtue has always been superficial, little more than a collective pursing of the lips. The same squeamish moralism is now at work on the issue of a downtown casino, and a huge opportunity for the city may well be wasted on its account. The debate we should be having is the one we are most predisposed to avoid: not whether we should have a casino, but how we can make the casino we will have fabulous.

The pros and cons have been wearyingly predictable. Richard Florida, patron saint of the creative class, declared on Metro Morning: “If you polled virtually every urbanist and everyone who’s studied urban economic development—Conservative, Liberal, NDP, right, left, centre—everyone would agree that casinos, as an economic development tool, are an unmitigated disaster.” It was not hard to picture Adam Vaughan as an old-timey temperance league ranter when he declared: “I’m not interested in turning my city into a casino at the expense of every small business, every restaurant, every bar, every entertainment facility….I’m not killing any neighbourhood in Toronto.” On the other side, pinky-ringed Paul Godfrey, chair of the OLG, has done his best to deflect these opinions, restating as bureaucratically and blandly as he can the revenues for health and education, the programs set up to deal with problem gambling, the ubiquity of casinos elsewhere. Montreal has a massive casino right at its core. Vancouver has two. Calgary has six. These are not cities famous for their blight. He has a point.

Fortunately, last fall, before the furor of the casino debate began, the Canadian Consortium for Gambling Research, a collaborative academic body for a broad range of research institutions, published an extensive report on the social and economic effects of gambling on Canadian cities. The results are far more nuanced than either side would have you believe: “In most jurisdictions, in most time periods, the impacts of gambling tend to be mixed, with a range of mild positive economic impacts offset by a range of mild to moderate negative social impacts.” Even this tentative conclusion comes with an array of caveats, essential to understanding the question of casino development in Toronto. The impacts of casinos on any region are, in the study’s terms, “strongly mediated” by how much gambling there already is in the community, and how much of the gambling revenue is tied to tourism. Both of these mediating factors make a Toronto casino much more attractive.

On the point of tourism, a few indisputable, though politically incorrect, facts: by 2015, 43 per cent of the world’s gambling revenue is expected to originate in the Asia-Pacific region. By then, Macao alone is projected to rake in almost five times more than all of Nevada. The fastest-growing source of tourists to Toronto, by far, is China. Ergo, it makes sense to assume that many of our future tourists would visit a casino.

But what renders the casino debate moot is that we are already a city of gamblers. Our mayor is in favour of a referendum on the question of a casino, but it would not, in any way, be a referendum on gambling. We’ve already decided about that. The casinos in Niagara Falls are 130 kilometres from downtown, so you can call from the office to reserve a spot at the poker table, drive there, and arrive just in time to sit down. To the north is Casino Rama. To the east is Great Blue Heron. If you’ve been banned from all those places, you can try Brantford. If you just want slots, you can catch a city bus to Woodbine. For five weeks in the summer, the CNE runs a charity casino across the street from Ontario Place. In addition to this welter of fully legal gambling, illegal card rooms and table games flourish all over the city. A quick Internet search should provide you with enough hints that if you can’t find a game, you shouldn’t be playing anyway. The police, being reasonable men and women with vastly more significant problems to address, usually leave these hideouts alone. And, of course, online gambling is available 24/7.

The worst thing we could do is to allow a casino but only where nobody has to see it, some cheap plastic box as attractive as a bottle of cooking sherry wrapped in a brown paper bag.

So far, our strategy around gambling has been to tuck the business out of sight, in farragoes of tackiness so godforsaken only the desperate would endure them. In a February Environics poll, 51 per cent of respondents preferred Woodbine as a potential location. MGM, which has proposed a monumental entertainment complex on the waterfront, has been clear that it wouldn’t bother with Woodbine, and neither should we. Why must we hide our vices away? Everybody knows gambling is bad, but we also know people are going to do it anyway. The same goes for eating red meat, driving big expensive cars, smoking cigarettes and, above all, drinking. To all of these pleasures there is a human cost, both to individuals and to society at large, and in extreme cases lives are destroyed. Does that mean we can’t have some fun? Just because there are drunks, can we not have wine bars? Just because there are fat kids, can we not have candy? And just because there are degenerate gamblers, can we not have casinos?

The worst thing we could do is to allow a casino but only where nobody has to see it, some cheap plastic box as attractive as a bottle of cooking sherry wrapped in a brown paper bag. We need glamour. We need a place with a view. We need a spot in Toronto proper but not too close to existing neighbourhoods. Our waterfront is perfect—and what else are we going to do with Ontario Place? The idea that the site can be turned into a socially responsible, family-friendly space that people want to go to has been flouted by decades of failure. Besides, the one thing this city does not need is more family-friendly spaces. Sometimes it can feel like that’s all there is.

There is no good reason Toronto should not have a structure akin, in ambition if not tradition, to the casino in Baden-Baden or the Casino Metropol in Moscow—buildings that are elegant and of a piece with the city in which they find themselves. Given our newfound status as a banking locus and the primary venue for mining capitalization in the world, there would obviously be a five-star hotel and the kind of high-end restaurants one always finds in these places. A permanent Cirque du Soleil show would follow. We could choose to make Ontario Place thrilling and daring and weird and powerful, or we could leave it as a tired ruin and have table games in Woodbine. Imagine a Bruce Kuwabara casino. Or a Will Alsop.

A downtown gambling palace is a chance for the city to slough off its tiresome veneer of hypocritical propriety. Why not try to make vice beautiful instead of hideous? Why not see if we can do it better than anybody else rather than with more shame? Why not live a little?