Does Toronto need a casino?

Why the city shouldn't dump its hopes down a black hole

Anna Galkovskaya/Getty

Try as it might to rid itself of the habit, Toronto the Good hangs in there.

Presently, the city is up to its clerical collar in a debate over whether or not to admit a provincial casino on its valuable central lands. This might seem like a no-brainer to outsiders. Downtown casinos have sprung up in cities across the country without major incident, but it’s still fraught stuff in Toronto: Remember, this is the city that required not one, but two referenda to even allow streetcars to run on Sundays. (The motion passed by a whisker on the second try in 1897; after all, you can use the streetcar to get to church.)

An enormous consultation has been launched. Across the four corners of the megacity, a cavalcade of city staff, politicians, developers and consultants have trouped from gymnasium to hall to foyer, setting up placards full of financial estimates, health-board reports and planning bafflegab. (Here is a map. Now here is a map with colours and arrows!) Senior city staff stood around, fielding questions. Passers-by were directed to round tables to participate in “facilitated discussions” and fill out surveys. Consultants who specialize in consultation were brought in. After a fiasco at the first session, when anti-casino councillors got upset at the lack of a public-speaking component and staged a rebel counter-consultation in another room, an open mic was added. You can also go and do the whole thing online, until the end of this week. If there exists a stray opinion on casinos anywhere within city limits, the city manager’s office wants it captured, fumigated and pinned to a corkboard.

It is, perhaps, the most Torontonian of all undertakings: A giant exercise in determining the city’s feelings about acquiring something it already has. There is, after all, a sizeable racetrack and casino at Woodbine, lighting up the night by the airport in the top-left corner of town. But the real money here is on bringing a casino downtown, and that’s another proposition entirely.

The casino debate is really a whole series of smaller debates wrapped up into one fraught package. Boosters of a new casino—who mostly seem to be landowners, casino operators and Rob Ford—want it because it would mean a substantial, but highly ambiguous, annual fee for the city’s coffers, and could net the city, in the mayor’s words, “10,000 or more good-paying union jobs.” Members of said hospitality unions have also been cautiously speaking out in favour of casinos at the consultations. And besides, if a casino is going to get dropped into the region one way or another, why shouldn’t Toronto be the one to pocket the cash?

Alas, the odds are long that the numbers we’re being given are accurate. Projections of the city’s take from the casino are at once wildly optimistic, wildly inconsistent, and keep getting revised downwards. The city hired consultants to bandy about hypothetical figures like a delightful $168 million a year, while the province—which actually holds the purse strings and needs the money, too—is talking in the neighbourhood of $50 to $100 million. Those “10,000 or more” jobs are unlikely, seeing as not even the biggest casinos in Vegas employ that many. All the while, the city would end up shouldering all the resulting costs of traffic, policing and public health.

Local merchants are worried about losing business. The Toronto Board of Health voted to recommend against a casino on account of problem gambling. (Before you say “Addicts will just go to Casino Rama instead,” remember that the evidence suggests that when it comes to feeding addictions, proximity matters.)

Beneath it all, there’s that latent local aversion to casinos, period. Some of it looks like old-school Protestantism: At the final consultation session, at the Toronto Reference Library on Saturday, anti-casino voices dominated. When an older gentleman, making one of the few pro-casino deputations, said “There’s no question problem gambling exists. Should we then put only one LCBO in Orillia?”, voices in the crowd immediately shot back “Yes!”

But anti-gambling morality is a misleading canard. There’s moralizing here, all right, but it’s not the legacy of those who’d stop streetcars on Sundays; it’s the righteousness of urbanites trying to protect hard-won gains.

They have a point. An “urban casino” is an oxymoron. Montreal was smart enough to maroon its casino in the middle of the St. Laurent. Halifax put its own at an inert, and vaguely forlorn, end of the waterfront. Ottawa sent its casino to Gatineau. (Sorry, Gatineau!)

Cities thrive when they’re tightly packed, full of things to do and not interrupted by monoliths like giant stadiums, expressways or convention centres—the very things that hopeful politicians keep trying and failing to defibrillate their downtowns with. The last time you left the Rogers Centre after a Blue Jays flameout, did you yearn to linger around its windswept plaza?

In Toronto’s post-industrial Port Lands, for instance, the city only just fended off an attempt by the brothers Ford to scrap plans for a new neighbourhood of midrise buildings and build a mega-mall, monorail and Ferris wheel instead. Now, a local landowner is passing out plans for a temporary casino in the area, surrounded by an absurdly large sea of parking spaces.

On a practical level, lively streets—the thing that makes cities so appealing—depend on lots of people hopping back and forth between many destinations at all hours. Casinos, on the other hand, are designed to suck people in and keep people in, monopolizing their time and their money. They turn away from the outside world, blocking daylight to obscure the passage of time. Come for a drink. Stare at the slots. Stay for the show. Stay longer for the sensory overload. Stagger out some hours later.

Developers are now promising “urban” casino designs that look like downtown buildings. But that won’t change what goes on inside; they’ll still act like black holes on the street. Giant “destination” attractions, especially ones like that, just don’t make good places to live or work around. The environment is meant to make you forget where you are, not remember. Some tourist draw it would be: Come to Toronto, for the casino that could be anywhere.

So if you hit on the notion that a casino “just isn’t Toronto,” this is what it means. For all the endless, innumerable things that this city has done wrong, here’s the one thing it got right: When a plague of bad ideas gutted city centres across North America through the middle of the 20th century, Toronto’s residents took up the cause of old places, small places and living places. The result was a city whose greatest challenges stem from the fact that everyone wants a piece of it. Today, free land is almost gone and Toronto is earnestly trying to build those living places again. A casino just doesn’t figure in. Sometimes Toronto the Good knows what’s best.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.