By: David Rider
Casino fever is building again as Caesars and five other companies consider bidding to build gambling resorts in job-starved Rexdale and two sites in the east GTA.
Whichever company eventually wins Ontario Lottery and Gaming’s bid process, big change is coming to Woodbine Racetrack, Ajax Downs track and Great Blue Heron charity casino on Scugog Island near Port Perry.
The chance to crack a market coveted by gaming companies, and build or partner on adjacent entertainment complexes, has triggered a frenzy of alliance-forging, deal-making and a fight between Ajax and Pickering.
The New York Post reported that Caesars Entertainment, the famous casino operator now in bankruptcy protection, is using its bid for GTA hosting rights to try to win creditors’ support for a reorganization.
Caesars, which was part of a failed 2013 effort to convince Toronto council to welcome a waterfront casino, would not confirm it is among companies invited by OLG to bid for rights to operate the three-site GTA “bundle.”
The winning company will take control of the sites and propose future plans. That could involve location changes, except for council-dictated Woodbine, but plans require approval of OLG and Premier Kathleen Wynne’s cabinet.
A source with knowledge of the process and players, who is not authorized to speak publicly, said those invited to bid include Caesars plus: Genting Group, an Asia-based conglomerate that recently expanded its Resorts World casinos to the U.S.; Mohegan Sun, a Conneticut casino-resort owned by the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority; B.C.-based Great Canadian Gaming Corp. that operates casinos and race tracks and won OLG’s “east” gaming bundle; Penn National Gaming that runs Casino Rama and U.S. casinos and race tracks; and the consortium of U.S. and Canadian companies that operates Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls.
Great Canadian Gaming confirmed OLG’s invitation to participate but declined further comment during the “active process.” None of the four other casino companies returned the Star’s calls and emails for this article.
Ajax Mayor Steve Parish is convinced a full casino with live table games, to replace slots at Ajax Downs, will trigger construction of an entertainment complex there, and he is determined it be in his town.
“It’s in the (casino operator’s) best interest to make improvements in each site that improve them and don’t clobber their other money-making sites,” Parish said. “Business hates political uncertainty — Ajax has a relationship with OLG and this (race track and slots) facility is one of the best.”
A lot is at stake. Ajax earned an average of $6.4 million per year from hosting fees for the slots at Ajax Downs, and expects those fees to jump to $9.5 million to $12.3 million after the casino expansion, Parish says.
Neighbouring Pickering, however, is pushing hard to host the casino on more than 200 acres next to Highway 401 owned by the Apostolopoulos family, as part of a proposed mega-complex called Durham Live.
“The casino should come to Pickering,” says Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan. “Our site is much larger with more room and more opportunity for a convention centre, hotel complex and indoor water park, and a broader opportunity to become an entertainment and tourist destination point.”
Steve Apostolopoulos confirmed there has been “contact” between Durham Live and one or more of the casino operators, who will learn late next summer which company has won the prize.
“We’re here, we’re ready to rock n’ roll,” Apostolopoulos said.
The Great Blue Heron Casino is owned by Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation and operated by a corporate partnership, with table games managed by a charitable arm of the native band.
Band Chief Kelly LaRocca has “high hopes” for expansion of the small but successful casino, anticipating the addition of new amenities that recognize the cottage-country setting and cultural heritage of the band.
“We have a beautiful property called Seven Mile Island that we are looking to develop and we are open to doing something large and spectacular if that’s what the service provider wants,” LaRocca said.
The band is working on an agreement with the province to ensure Great Blue Heron doesn’t get “swallowed up or overwhelmed” by the other two casinos, she added.
“Scugog is definitely open for business.”
Rexdale, Woodbine’s northwest Etobicoke home, is hoping for a boom from the casino but has been disappointed before. A Baltimore developer in 2013 scrapped plans for Woodbine Live!, a massive shopping and entertainment complex.
In 2013, hopes of replacing OLG slot machines at Woodbine with a full casino were dashed when council rejected that along with a downtown casino. But council reconsidered last year, opening the door to a casino by a 25-19 vote amid fears for the track’s future.
Race track operator Woodbine Entertainment Group already has plans for major development, building “a city within a city” on its site, guided by international architecture and planning firm SWA Group.
Ward 1 Councillor Vince Crisanti is optimistic a casino will give his area the long-promised jobs and development it badly needs.
“The biggest jackpot in this vision for Woodbine is new jobs, revitalization, and economic opportunities for Etobicoke North and its residents,” said Crisanti, who has tried to allay fears of gambling-related social ills.
With Rexdale close to Pearson airport and a highway drive from downtown, he expects a casino to anchor a live entertainment venue, restaurants, hotels, a water park, and more “but it has to be a family entertainment place.”
He is confident the new complex will create more than 2,500 new jobs and expects the city to get $20 million or more in hosting fees and other revenues.
Now, he said, he will push for better transit — extending the planned Finch light-rail line to Woodbine for a start.