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Woolwich leans towards hosting an OLG casino; debate continues

The certainty of millions in revenues versus perhaps, maybe the possibility of some problems that we may already have? For Woolwich Mayor Todd Cowan, at any rate, there doesn’t appear to be much of a debate. Where council falls on the issue of a casino in the township, however, will have to wait a couple of weeks.

And a few more speakers, pro and con, will have to be trotted out, as they were at this week’s council meeting.

Woolwich administrators have already weighed in, recommending that councillors agree to be a host community as the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) looks to bring to the region a casino with 1,200 slot machines and 55 gaming tables.

A report tabled by chief administrative officer David Brenneman highlights the revenues, conservatively estimated at $4 million a year, plus the township’s share of $3.5 million in taxes. He acknowledges some of the concerns raised by opponents – problem gambling, increased demand on social services – but concludes the benefits outweigh the potential downside.

Some of the delegates at Tuesday night’s meeting took exception with Brenneman’s findings, pointing to the negatives.

As he has done at previous public meetings, Rob Simpson, the former CEO of the Ontario Problem Gaming Research Centre, argued the increase in problem gambling and the net outflow of dollars associated with a casino will do far more harm than good.

The report, said Simpson, cherry-picked statistics to downplay the negative impacts. But even the economic benefits don’t add up, he added, estimating some $216 million in revenues would come at the expense of the existing entertainment, food and beverage, recreation and accommodation businesses.

“Gambling money is not hidden under beds waiting for a casino to be built: it is reallocated from other consumer purchases.”

On the issue of gambling’s impact on public health, his arguments were backed up by Dr. Liana Nolan, Waterloo Region’s chief medical officer of health.

“Problem gambling will increase in Waterloo Region with the proximity of a casino because of increased access,” she told councillors.

Statistics show 5.5 per cent of slot gamblers would be at risk for high-severity problem gambling, while 12.1 per cent of table game players would be at risk. Using those figures, she estimated there could be some 8,800 high-severity problem gamblers in Waterloo-Wellington, and a further 26,300 moderately-severe problem gamblers.

Contrary to OLG’s claims it takes pains to reduce problem gambling, she said preventative measures have proven inadequate, as a substantial amount of revenue is raised on the backs of those with gambling problems.

“The revenue generated relies in part on problem gamblers and current measures to prevent problem gambling have limited effectiveness.”

Cowan, however, challenged some of the assumptions about how much of an impact a new casino would have on gambling rates, pointing out that people in the region already have access to gambling. From bingos to online gaming, off-track betting and facilities nearby in Elora and Brantford, those looking to gamble have a number of options.

Plenty of people from the region fly out to Las Vegas, he added.

“Should we restrict flying to Vegas? We live in a free country. We have free choice.”

As gambling already happens here, the addition of a new casino wouldn’t be a fundamental shift.

“We can’t pretend that we live on an island, that we don’t have gambling,” he said.

For Mark Bingeman, head of the Waterloo Regional Tourism Marketing Corporation, the addition of a casino could be a tourism draw, especially if packaged as part of efforts to draw conferences and conventions to the region.

Such overnight stays would inject more than $4 for every $1 a daytrip to the region provides to the local economy. Right now, the region’s lack of offerings, including entertainment choices, means it’s losing out on attracting that kind of business.

The area is “not on the grid as far as conventions go,” he said.

In his presentation, however, Simpson was quick to dismiss the tourism angle, which was cited in Brenneman’s report.

“The authors continue with the canard that people from outside Waterloo Region will choose it as a destination because of the casino. This is absolutely no justification for this,” he said. “Recall that OLG has plans for similar casinos in Hamilton, London and Halton, smaller ones in Woodstock and Huron County, the casino in Brantford and two gigantic casinos in Toronto. Why would Waterloo Region be a destination when each of these will offer exactly the same games?”

Having been through the gambling debate the last time around, Woolwich resident Melissa Snyder urged councillors to stick to economic issues rather than emotional arguments in making a decision.

A member of the Woolwich Agricultural Society board during the Elmira Raceway slots debate more than a decade ago, she said the decision is not about values but about business.

“I don’t need councillors to tell me what my values should be,” she said, noting during the previous round many emotional arguments against the slots proved to be unfounded.

Based on those arguments, the raceway moved to Elora, where Centre-Wellington Township reaped the economic benefits. If there are any social problems due to gambling, then Woolwich is already having to deal with them – “there’s no wall between Woolwich and Elora” – without any of the money.

“Make this a business decision, not an emotional decision. Don’t make this good versus evil again,” she said, referring to the Elmira Raceway issue.

Her arguments in favour of the casino were countered by Richard Frey, pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Elmira, who said the potential harm to the community should trump thoughts of the money.

“I don’t think this should only be about money,” he said of the decision, echoing arguments the casino would just siphon off money destined to be spent on other pursuits.

In gathering input from the public, the township received mostly negative feedback: of the 1,954 responses through a mail-in postcard survey, online questionnaire and emails, 62 per cent said no to the casino option, while 38 per cent were in favour.

That overall number potentially represents some 11 per cent of eligible voters in the township. However, there were no controls over multiple voting or across platforms, such as someone sending in a postcard, filling out an online survey or writing councillors directly. Given how the input was solicited, there’s no way of knowing if the response was a representative sample of residents’ feelings about hosting a casino.

Councillors did not deliberate on staff’s recommendation. Instead, they’ll hear from more delegates, including Brantford Mayor Chris Friel and Waterloo Regional Police chief Matt Torigian, at a meeting March 5 before making a decision about whether or not Woolwich will be a host community for an OLG casino.

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  1. As elected representatives of Woolwich residents, Council is supposed to make decisions that reflect the views of those residents; in other words, to represent their views.

    Let the David Brenneman make the pitch for economic justfication, and let the pastors make moral appeals. But the Township’s own survey on the matter showed that Woolwich residents are overwhelmingly against a casino in the Township.

    Now let’s see if our elected representatives actually represent us.

    –Bob.

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