Problems? Maybe. Lots of money? Definitely. Certainty won the day as Woolwich council opted to become a host community as the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation plans a new casino in the region.
Following a marathon session Tuesday night, councillors voted 4-1 in favour of keeping the casino option in play, becoming the first municipality in Waterloo Region to do so despite the pleas of several residents concerned about the morality of gambling.
The OLG is looking to bring to the region a casino with 1,200 slot machines and 55 gaming tables. The township is part of a gaming zone that includes the region’s three cities, Wilmot Township and, in Wellington County, Centre Wellington Township. In standing as a host community, Woolwich joins Centre Wellington. Cambridge and Wilmot have said no, while Kitchener and Waterloo have made no formal decision.
Most of the dozen or so speakers who addressed councillors opposed the idea of a casino – only two spoke in favour – but it was likely presentations by police chief Matt Torigian and Brantford Mayor Chris Friel that provided the most swaying power.
With Waterloo Regional Police officially neutral on the subject, Torigian said there are no data to show a link between casinos and an increase in crime, while Friel indicated a decade’s worth of experience shows the casino to have been a net benefit to his city.
Combined with a staff report in favour of the casino option, those arguments were enough for all but Coun. Mark Bauman, the sole dissenting voice.
Bauman pointed to the results of a survey – online and via mail-in postcards – that showed 62 per cent of respondents opposed to a casino, with only 38 per cent in favour. While acknowledging the input was open to abuse through multiple voting, including by people from outside the township, he argued the same potential existed for both sides, likely cancelling each other out and making the survey a valid indicator.
It wasn’t enough to allow the public to have its say: council had to give the input more weight.
“Part of consultation is listening, and I don’t think we’re listening,” he said.
Mayor Todd Cowan, however, noted the surveys weren’t a binding vote, rather another bit of information to take into consideration when making a decision.
In the end, the upside of an estimated $4 million a year in revenue plus the share of $3.5 million in property taxes outweighed the often emotional arguments made by the public, he said.
He and other councillors remained unconvinced that a casino in Woolwich would have a dramatic impact on the number of problem gambling cases – a go-to issue with opponents – given the wide variety of options already available, including lotteries, bingos, online gaming and a slots facility in neighbouring Centre Wellington Township.
“We’re not on an island; there’s gambling all around us,” said Cowan, acknowledging potential problems, but noting that the majority of gamblers don’t have an addiction, just as the majority of those buying alcohol don’t have a drinking problem.
He cautioned against making a decision based on emotion rather than the realities of gambling today.
“It’s an emotional issue, so we certainly have to look at the facts.”
The facts were plentiful and favourable as outlined by Friel, who was in the opposition camp when a casino was first debated in Brantford back in 1997. Today he’s a convert.
Eventually approved, the casino has pumped more than $48 million into the city’s coffers since it opened in 1999. That money has helped revitalize the city’s moribund downtown core, paid for infrastructure projects, funded part of a new $64-million recreational complex and bankrolled numerous smaller community projects, he said.
“We would not be able to do that without casino dollars.”
During the initial debates, opponents painted very negative images of what would happen if a casino was permitted to go ahead, much as was the case with the debate over slots at the Elmira Raceway during that same time period.
“We believed that it was going to be the end of the world,” said Friel. “We heard it was going to be Sodom and Gomorrah.”
None of that happened, he stressed, adding the casino was not the nirvana that some proponents claimed it would be.
Instead, it’s a good business that provides more than 900 jobs, tax revenues and a share of the profits.
“Really, it’s nothing more than another industry in our community.”
His presentation seemed to have the biggest impact on councillors: rather than theory, he was speaking from experience. It came near the end of a sometimes emotional string of delegates coming to the microphone to ask councillors to forget about the money and concentrate on intangibles such as morality and community values.
For lifelong resident Ken Seiling, speaking as a citizen and not as regional chair, a casino would be simply out of step with Woolwich’s character, a community with a history of disallowing development that wasn’t a good fit, even if it would boost revenues.
“Woolwich should not be bought,” he said, noting he was embarrassed to see the township considering a casino when all of other municipalities in the region have shied away.
For Gerry Forler of Concerned Citizens Against Gambling, the potential social harms, particularly to young people, far outweigh any monetary gains.
The very business model adopted by the OLG depend on the losses of others, he stressed.
In voting to be a host community, the township merely places its name in the hat. Whether or not it actually sees a casino will depend on proposals presented by private developers to the OLG and municipal officials, with any actual construction, where and if it happens, expected in a 2016-2018 timeframe.