The Toronto Casino

While waiting in line at the supermarket a thought occurred to me. I had plenty of time for the thought as the lady at the head of the ‘1-8 items’ line was buying a huge number of lottery tickets. She didn’t appear to be rich or poor, just another Saturday evening hopeful. The grim expression on her face told me that there would be no hurrying this transaction and so I cut my losses and trundled over to another line.

The thought was this; why is there such an outcry against a casino in Toronto when there are so many ways already available for people to gamble? In addition to lottery tickets there are charity bingo games, scratch cards, online terminal poker, online casinos (not yet legal in Canada), Pro Line (betting on sports results), track races e.g. Woodbine, hockey pools and existing casinos such as Casino Rama, Niagara and so on.

Just a few weeks ago, I was a strong and vocal opponent of any casino in Toronto. My reasoning; that gambling is a tax on the poor, people with addictive personalities and those who don’t understand probability. Also, while some jobs would be created, the likely return to the city would be small.

I guess I was OK with saying no to a Toronto casino until the MGM proposal came along. After all, it’s easy to say no to a change from the status quo. MGM wishes to build an extensive installation on the current CNE grounds. Displaced parts of the CNE (not the midway) would move across Lakeshore Boulevard and the casino itself would be part of an entertainment complex that would include a hotel, public plaza, restaurants and theatres. Historical buildings such as the Stanley Barracks would remain in place. In addition to the jobs generated by building the complex, the grossly under-utilized CNE grounds would have a function for the 49 weeks when the CNE isn’t running. Let’s face it, CNE jobs are for three weeks and don’t pay that well. Most weeks of the year, you could fire a proverbial cannon through the Princes’ Gates and not hit anyone. A casino complex would create a huge number of jobs, not all of them well paid but there would be many terrific opportunities for people such as George Brown College grads who would probably prefer a chance to work in Toronto. The casino would attract visitors from outside of the region and their money spent on other Toronto businesses as people looked at what else the city has to offer. All of these people and companies would be subject to property, HST and other taxes.

According to an excellent CBC article, if you buy 50 tickets a week, you can expect to win a lottery jackpot once every 5000 years. Lotteries typically return around 45% back to players in the form of jackpots and other prizes. There are no rules about how much money is returned to bingo players but it’s probably not much over 50%.

What about casinos? In Ontario, payouts are regulated by the province. By far the most popular gambling form in casinos is the slot machine. Legally these can return no less than 85% but typically are set to 91-93% on average. Roulette (double zero) returns about 94% while card players can see better odds. A skilled blackjack player can achieve a 99% return.

I doubt if there are many of us who have resisted the urge to gamble at one time or another. Gambling exploits the clash between chance, greed and common sense. In addition, there seems to be a component that ties into a primitive part of the brain concerned with reward. There’s no doubt that some people cannot control the urge to gamble and casinos enable these people to lose money at an alarming rate, perhaps ensuring ruin for their family. How can we allow this to happen? Well, how can we allow people to drink, smoke, overeat and whatever. We allow them because they’ll do it anyway. They can go to an Ontario casino or elsewhere such as Las Vegas. Instead of driving gamblers to illegal online or casinos outside of Ontario, wouldn’t it be better to control and tax it here? We’re probably home to a large number of problem gamblers anyway, why not allow them to gamble here and offer help if they ask for it? Let’s face it, there is only one place where a large casino complex can bring the numbers to the table and that is Toronto. What about the reports from places like Windsor which have found that the casino generates very little revenue for other businesses? Wouldn’t that happen here in Toronto? I can answer that with another question; have you been to Windsor lately? There’s not much there to keep anyone entertained. Toronto is a major tourist attraction. The casino would be just one part of a visit to the city.

Lastly, all of the casino proposals are selling a dream. The dream of happy gamblers, floods of visitors and money for the city. Companies like MGM are merely bidding to manage the implementation of the dream for a fee. The overheads and the profits will be the responsibility of the taxpayer through the OLG. Based on the number of lobbyists pushing casinos, there is much money to be made. Because of so many gambling outlets available, it will be a mistake to say no to a casino in Toronto. However, let’s make sure that Toronto City Council hires a decent negotiator and gets the very best deal for the taxpayer so that in addition to the high paying jobs, there will be a meaningful revenue stream for the city along with a boost to tourism that will float everybody’s boat.