‘SUBSIDISING’ DECLINE: Will City of Orillia & ‘Rama’ Survive Woodbine Expansion, Amid OLG ‘Kickbacks’ to Media, Towns, Provinces?

News Analysis / By Awakening News Staff

As the Awakening News cautioned nearly two years ago, the pending “city within a city,” otherwise known as the Woodbine “future entertainment hub” of Northwest Toronto, is apparently destined to become a reality, though it’s still going through the approval process.

And our caution is being clearly vindicated. It has to do with the “magnet effect” that the vastly-expanded Woodbine Racetrack, among other new or expanding casinos, will have upon their completion, drawing employees and customers away from places like Casino Rama near Orillia.

Whether we like gambling or not, the reality is that Orillia and surrounding towns have several hundred “Rama” employees whose jobs are dependent on the flow of customers who drive to the Lake Simcoe area to gamble, eat, drink and lodge. Undeniably, many of those customers wanting to play “Rama’s” table games and slots come from the greater Toronto area.

But given the massive Woodbine-expansion plan under brisk development—and being heavily promoted—Toronto area people will feel the incentive to stay near home.

As reported by Frank Matys in Orillia Today, Casino Rama stands to lose—evidently a lot—according to Chippewas of Rama First Nation Chief Rodney Noganosh. The OLG leases Casino Rama from the Nation while an American corporation, Penn National, manages it, though Penn National’s contract ran out and a new manager, B.C.-based Gateway Casinos & Entertainment, will soon officially take over.

Matys’ article, however, was published back in April of 2016, which is when Noganosh wrote a letter to Orillia Mayor Steve Clarke to voice his “concern over plans to establish entertainment complexes at casinos in Niagara and [at] Woodbine,” Orillia Today added.

But since then, the Orillia government has become rather quiet about Noganash’s well-reasoned warning, especially regarding the crucial point expressed in Noganosh’s attached motion, supported by band council, which warned Orillia’s leaders that the array of entertainment complexes under development “will negatively impact Casino Rama and the local economy,Orillia Today also noted. [Emphasis added]

ORILLIA POISED TO DECLINE?

The band, take note, has been saying that local casino revenues have declined in the last few years due to ‘additional competition allowed by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp.’” Furthermore, the band said that “increased competition has also resulted in job losses,” the same Orillia Today piece also noted.

Ladies and gentlemen, “job losses” doesn’t just mean cutting the hours of, or firing, Rama employees; it also means that because of the Rama cuts, there will be less spending money in people’s pockets—resulting in less spending at local stores, shops, car dealerships, restaurants etc.

Keep in mind that there’s something known as the “ripple-multiplier effect,” where every dollar spent in the general economy, such as at downtown shops and eateries in Orillia, Coldwater, Midland, etc.—spawns additional wages and more spending, to maintain and increase employment and productivity.

Noganosh sought the Orillia city council’s support in urging Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. to suspend other area entertainment-complex proposals. The band informed the council that it wants the gaming agency to revisit a 2010 Rama development plan that included 300 additional rooms and expanded conference space.

And, to their credit, Orillia’s councilors expressed support for the band’s motion, which happened two years ago in a unanimous vote during a committee meeting.

“If it has an impact on Casino Rama, it is likely to be not a positive impact,” Clarke was quoted as saying at the time. “That could have a significant impact on our local economy in terms of not realizing the economic spinoff from those who visit the casino, but also the employees.”

Besides addressing the city, Noganosh at that time met with Simcoe North MPP Patrick Brown to voice his concerns. Yet, when Awakening News attempted more than once to document Brown’s views on this matter, there was no response at all.

However, a mitigating factor which is generally known, but perhaps not seriously considered in terms of its potentially adverse impact, is that the OLG cuts casino-revenue cheques to municipalities.

On that note, Innisfil Mayor Gord Wauchope had initially said that he was hopeful that Great Canadian would take over management of the Georgian Downs casino in his area, located near Barrie. But while Great Canadian, of B.C., reportedly got the Woodbine contract, it turns out that Gateway (the new Rama manager) was picked by the OLG to also run Georgian Downs.

Interestingly, the Innisfil Journal called the $1.8 million which the town of Innisful received as a quarterly casino-revenue payment [as of July 2017] a “kickback,” an interesting choice of words.

On average, the OLG reportedly gives $2 billion per year to Canada’s provinces thanks to gaming profits—profits that partially come off the backs of some 300,000 gambling addicts in Canada, according to a recent CBC-Fifth Estate report.

Yet all Canadians hear are media-based remarks like: “The OLG will continue to cut the cheques for the municipalities . . . It’s for education, health care or charities.”

Meanwhile, Tony Bitonti, an OLG spokesman, was quoted as saying, “The goal is to make sure we [the OLG] maintain and increase the revenues coming to us and back to the province.”

MONEY THAT PACIFIES

This municipal-provincial “kickback” process mirrors that of the media-kickback process: In both cases, the OLG is dishing out enough money, with gobs of it flowing to the media specifically to advertise gambling, to virtually ensure that the unrestrained growth of gambling will continue without vocal criticism or resistance from anyone within the municipal, media and provincial establishment.

As this “dome of silence” covers Canada, the most vulnerable entities are the people themselves and the personal and small-business bankruptcies, spousal abuse, alcoholism, abandonment of children, missed child-support payments and many other ills gambling can and does foster—along with undercutting mom-and-pop stores and whatever harm may befall First Nations as certain things happen:

  • Either the Woodbine expansion and other casino growth will make some casinos close along with the loss of those jobs and the erosion of the former employees’ purchasing power;
  • And / or the sheer magnitude of expanded gambling will intensify and enlarge gambling addiction and all the attendant social ills. Remember the Fifth Estate’s rough estimate of 300,000 problem gamblers is 1% of the entire Canadian population of 30 million from ocean to ocean, yet it’s 2.1% of Ontario’s population of just over 14 million. (Take away the minors who cannot enter casinos, and those percentages jump).
  • Furthermore, let’s realize that the original horse-race betting taking place at Woodbine could get squeezed out. Because the traditional horsemen already had a gaming license, the OLG moved into Woodbine and installed slots. And with Woodbine being slated as a virtual city, bringing in table games to boot, gamblers’ money is bound to be increasingly steered in a thousand different directions, away from horse bets. How about shutting down the slots 30 minutes before each series of horse races to give the horse-racing culture a fair shake at survival in light of the addictive, instant-gratification of slots?

Therefore, with news of the Woodbine expansion crackling through the airwaves and the planned addition of table games there, the deck may be stacked for a rather serious economic downturn in the greater Orillia area and more undercutting of the equestrian culture. Meanwhile, Canada’s casino authorities say they want limits on how many casinos private companies like Great Canada are contracted to operate, but there’s no mention of limiting how many casinos should be allowed to operate in Canada as a whole.

Regarding the redirection of casino business from Rama to Woodbine, one need only consider that greater-Toronto-area customers clearly would rather save the fuel and time it takes to drive the 140 kilometers (each direction) to Rama. For example, why should anyone risk getting slapped with an impaired-driving charge when they can stay much closer to home?

WOODBINE EXPANSION MASSIVE

It’s not like the new Woodbine will be limited to adding table games in the existing racetrack building. The plans under review also call for a seven-level garage with 4,350 parking places, 1,240 of which would be below the entertainment building. The place will have 12-story hotel towers containing well over 500 rooms, perhaps close to 1,000 rooms, with the towers overlooking the racetrack.

And what’s referred to as “Block 10” at Woodbine “would contain the largest buildings in the redevelopment, totaling 98,556 square meters over the five new facilities,” an online promotional piece noted. “The northern portion of this site would contain a 10,647 square meters three-story performance venue. Connected south of this will be a 48,343 square meters two-story entertainment building containing a casino—with retail and restaurants, bars and lounges, along with two-story retail and casino administration offices.”