No matter what anyone says, a Woodbine casino would be good for Toronto

No matter what anyone says, a Woodbine casino would be good for Toronto

(Image: Peter Vanderheyden/Flickr) (Image: Peter Vanderheyden/Flickr)
 

I’m not a fan of casinos. I’ve never dropped a single coin into a slot machine. As someone with a background in money management, gambling is borderline offensive to me. Even so, when the idea of expanding the Woodbine Racetrack’s gambling facilities wound up on this week’s city council agenda, I was encouraged. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not under the delusion that turning the race track into a full-fledged casino is going to solve all of Rexdale’s problems. But city hall could use expanded gaming as a catalyst for the most ambitious revitalization project in Rexdale’s history.

Opponents of the expansion cite the negative effects of casinos on communities. They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Rexdale—my neighbourhood, and the one where the racetrack is located—has lacked meaningful investment for a very long time. And while well-meaning people might have their reservations about casinos, they’re not exactly coming up with a plethora of alternative suggestions for getting our community back to work. Expanded gaming in exchange for badly needed commercial and retail development is a good trade-off. If some city councillors don’t agree, then they should show us what other proposals they’ve got up their sleeves.

When we last had this conversation, in 2013, we were talking about building two casinos: one downtown, and one inside the Woodbine complex. While the Woodbine proposal made sense (and still does), the idea of building a downtown casino was half-baked and doomed to fail. The bundling of the two proposals cast the Woodbine expansion in an unfavourable light. Rob Ford’s bullying tactics and personal problems made the issue radioactive, and forced moderate councillors to vote against both proposals in order to distance themselves from him.

Some blame for the 2013 Woodbine proposal’s failure also rests with former Ward 2 councillor Doug Ford. Rather than focusing his efforts on building a solid case for Woodbine, located in what was then his ward, Ford spent his vanishingly small political capital pursuing the downtown casino. His bullheaded focus on a lost cause rankled and alienated potential pro-Woodbine councillors.

Opponents of the Woodbine expansion talk about the dangers of building new casinos, but Woodbine is, for all intents and purposes, already a casino. The opposition usually rests on the spectre of increased crime, problem gambling, sex work and predatory lending, with slot machines singled out as the culprit. And yet, these problems haven’t materialized in Rexdale in the 15 years since the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation installed slot machines at the Woodbine complex. In fact, the neighbourhood’s overall crime numbers have been falling. If anything were capable of destroying the moral and economic fibre of our community, city hall’s outrageous neglect would have done it by now. We’ll manage to survive poker and blackjack tables.

Woodbine doesn’t share most of the problems inherent in a downtown casino. The track’s location in a bowtie of highways—427, 401, and 407—would keep it from becoming a terminus for sloshed tourists cabbing it out of the entertainment district with half-empty wallets and no sense of when to call it a night. And Woodbine ideally wouldn’t be preying on hapless locals. The clientele the track is looking for is business travellers and other people passing through Pearson Airport.

Unlike a downtown casino, which would gobble up precious land that could better be used for other purposes, Woodbine sits on one of the largest patches of undeveloped and privately owned land in Toronto. Commercial developers have expressed interest in building there, but on the condition that development is anchored by a full-fledged casino. The accompanying jobs would be essential in a neighbourhood like Rexdale, where residents are largely poorer than the city average, and where full-time jobs are embarrassingly scarce. Many of those who would find work as a result of the Woodbine expansion—the carpenters, game operators, and food and beverage workers—would be given relatively secure, union jobs. In fact, local unions support the expanded gaming proposal because the track, restaurants, and slots are already staffed with their workers.

I understand the opposition to a casino in Toronto, and I agree with some of the arguments. Without proper planning and community consultation, casinos can siphon money from local residents, exacerbate crime, and fuel addictions. But there have also been multiple studies that support the notion that casinos can have a net positive economic and social impact. By hiring within the community, seeking business from outside of it, and acting as landlord for a newly developed entertainment district in Rexdale, Woodbine could be a massive success story. If council rejects the expansion, even with the best of intentions, it would do nothing more than prove that prosperity in Toronto is a matter of luck, and of having the right postal code.