Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Casino Toronto: What's in it for Rob Ford?

By: Metro Published on Wed Apr 10 2013

After months and months of tedious debate, staff at City Hall released their report on the subject of a Toronto casino on Monday. It's a big document that expresses only guarded support for the idea of a downtown gambling venue, detailing a long list of recommended conditions that the province and OLG would have to meet for Toronto City Council to grant approval. In short, staff suggest a big hosting fee, a smaller amount of space devoted to gambling, some funded supports to fight associated social ills, and, oh yeah, a giant convention centre, thrown in at no extra cost. All this before we even consider plunking a glitzy resort on the city's waterfront.

It's so unlikely to happen. I've been saying for a while that, barring some sort of political miracle or a provincial power play, the issue of a downtown casino is essentially dead, owning mostly to a lack of support on council. This report only makes things more unlikely. I'd be shocked if OLG meets this list of demands.

Which brings me to the one remaining question I have about this whole, tortuous process: why has Mayor Rob Ford gone to bat so hard for a downtown casino? What's in it for him?

It's not something that comes purely from populism — there is virtually no chance Ford is fielding scores of positive phone calls on the casino idea. Ask any councillor and they'll tell you that they're receiving a high volume of feedback on the casino these days, with the vast majority of it coming from people opposed.

Polls bear that out. While an Environics poll commissioned by the city as part of the casino study reveals a 50% to 42% split on the casino issue — with a majority opposed — it also suggests that far more people strongly oppose a casino than strongly support it. In other words, most people who support a downtown casino probably wouldn't consider it a key election issue. Those opposed, meanwhile, are far more likely to go to war.

The issue doesn't break down purely along traditional party lines, either. This isn't a situation where Ford's base is on side with the idea of a casino and those opposed can be dismissed as pinko socialists. Another poll on casinos by Forum Research, taken last year, saw just 48% of those who approve of the mayor — already a minority of voters — voicing their support for the casino. And casino development was a big loser amongst seniors, who make up a big chunk of Ford's base, with just 30% of those 65 and older in support. It's possible that Ford has swayed some of Ford Nation to the pro-casino side since that poll, but I wouldn't count on it.

So why is Ford beating this drum, especially as it looks like council won't make a real, definitive decision on casinos until after the next mayoral election? Does he really want to hang his reelection chances on something as controversial as a casino?

I only have one theory: this is the last rabbit he has to pull from his hat on the subways issue. Having exhausted the unlikely theory that the private sector will swoop in and build his grand subway plan for free, Ford is now stuck pushing the idea that a downtown casino will generate the revenues he needs to make Scarborough's subway a reality. The alternative, I guess, would be for him to just plain admit he has no plan to raise money for transit — so nothing will get built.

The casino-for-subways gambit makes no sense, of course. Even at the top-end of city estimates for direct casino revenue, Toronto would only take in enough to fund about half a kilometre of subway construction each year. At that rate, it would take about twenty years to get the funds to extend the Sheppard Subway to Scarborough Town Centre.

Hardly a plan that anyone should take seriously — but I guess stranger things have won votes.

This post was originally published at on 2013-04-10T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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