Wheels of fortune

CITIES

Ontario gambles on a casino in Windsor

July 12 1993
Wheels of fortune

CITIES

Ontario gambles on a casino in Windsor

July 12 1993

CITIES

Wheels of fortune

Ontario gambles on a casino in Windsor

For Kim Chu, the flashing billboard that blares Casino City above her month-old restaurant is a sign of things to come. It has to be, she says, because her family has already gambled dangerously in moving to Windsor. Four years ago, they bought a two-storey commercial building in the city’s leafy central core—just before the recession started to. bite. Within a year, stores were packing up and abandoning the city of 192,000, which sits across the river from the sprawling U.S. metropolis of Detroit. Some chose to move to Windsor’s suburbs, where an increase in jobs and population have helped that part of the city to start bouncing back. But by last Christmas, the tavern that had rented space in Chu’s building for more than 30 years closed—another victim of cross-border shopping and high unemployment. Chu, her husband and father still operate a variety store in the building’s other retail space and live in apartments upstairs. Now, with the Ontario government finalizing plans to open the province’s first casino in Windsor, Chu has given her new restaurant a name to express her confidence that the project will succeed. Said Chu: “The casino is going to save this city.”

Her attitude is shared by many politicians across Canada, who are looking to gambling as a sure bet for raising revenues and creating jobs. Quebec’s first casino is due to open in Montreal in October, inspired by the success of the country’s first permanent, for-profit casino, which opened in Winnipeg in 1989. In Ontario, the NDP government announced its intention to legalize casinos in its 1992 budget. After dozens of municipalities eagerly submitted bids to set up casinos, the province chose Windsor last fall for the pilot project. Last week, the cabinet approved a downtown site for an interim casino—in the Art Gallery of Windsor—and it could open its doors by the end of the year. But it is still not a sure thing.

The enabling legislation has not yet passed the provincial legislature, where one NDP member has resigned from the caucus in protest.

And a backlash appears to be gaining strength in Windsor, where opponts claim that a casino would at-

tract crime and other social ills to the city.

To the distress of some local residents, the Windsor project from the start has remained under the control of the Ontario Casino Project, a planning team set up last summer by the provincial Ministry of Consumer and Commercial Relations. Its head, Domenic Alfieri, a senior civil servant, said that the project went to Windsor because “they had a well-planned proposal and the full support of their city council.” Over the next few months, Alfieri’s 20-member team will weigh submissions from the nine groups in contention to build and run the casino. They include the huge American Harrah’s Casino Hotels operation, tennis player Jimmy Connors’s Windsor Argosy Casino Group, and an Ontario Jockey Club partnership.

The casino’s proponents say that it will create more than 2,500 direct jobs and attract

12,000 visitors each day to Canada’s automotive capital. But its opponents counter that, besides the social problems associated with gambling operations, Windsor may get the raw end of a deal. They note that, after the operator deducts its take, the province will receive the net profits and a 20-per-cent tax on gross revenues—in all, an estimated $140 million each year. Said Mayor Michael Hurst: ‘We should get a bigger chunk of the profits.” And while a government poll leaked to the press in February shows 2-1 support for the casino in Windsor, its opponents are raising their voices. Said Kaija Ranta, a Lutheran pastor who is co-ordinating a campaign to stop the casino: “Nobody asked if we want it.” Public input is also a concern of Dennis Drainville, the central Ontario MPP who quit the NDP caucus last fall in opposition to casinos. “When did people get a say in all this?” asked Drainville, who said that party leaders did not even consult the caucus before approving the casino project. “We have reversed years of opposing gambling,” he said, adding that the social costs will be too high. Still, Drainville acknowledges that opposition remains disjointed.

Ironically, while the province chose Windsor as a guinea pig for an attraction to draw thousands of tourists, it has also launched a pilot project there to merge and trim the area’s four hospitals. Among other things, it would cut the availability of emergency room services and acutecare beds. For Anita North, a neurosurgeon in the city’s Hotel Dieu hospital, the contradictions are stunning. She says that increased traffic, drinking and petty crime from casino visitors were not taken into consideration in projections for the hospital cuts. Said North: “It’s naïve to ignore the impact.”

But by all official appearances, the casino concept is already a fixture in Windsor. City council has set aside a 13-acre riverfront site, several blocks from the art gallery, for a permanent site for the casino. And it boasts about the coming attraction in a promotion package that exclaims: “I’m betting on Windsor!” Many residents can enthusiastically recite a litany of features of the proposed complex, including the fact that its 75,000-square-foot gaming area—with blackjack, roulette, baccarat and slot machines—will run from 11 a.m. until 4 a.m. during the week and around the clock on weekends. The city’s St. Clair College is already offering a diploma course for blackjack dealers. Said Dan Naud, an unemployed 18-year-old: “Once the casino comes, there will I be a lot more jobs.”

But behind the scenes, even participants in the project are complaining about the province’s methods. Several would-be operators balked at the size of a $300,000 application fee,

none of which will be refunded to applicants that make a short list to be announced later this summer. Others dropped out, complaining that there was not enough time to prepare an effective application by last week’s deadline. “There is no time to design a winning proposal,” said Len Kriek, vice-president of planning for Mississippi-based Casino Magic Corp., which withdrew from the process in late June, then last week joined forces with a Canadian bid by Trillium Partnership, which had spent a year in preparing a proposal. Even one of the leading contenders, Harrah’s, expressed similar reservations. Said Walter Haybert, the Tennessee-based firm’s vicepresident of gaming development: “The fee is a little steep.” Countered Alfieri: ‘We want to make sure that they are serious.”

Even when the casino is operating, it will face some daunting obstacles, including a Criminal Code ban on games involving dice—which means that the lucrative craps games that are popular in casinos elsewhere will not be a part of the Windsor plan. There

is also a serious threat of competition emerging directly across the river in Detroit, where residents narrowly defeated a referendum in support of casinos last month. A casino there could seriously affect projections that Americans will make up more than 80 per cent of gamblers in Windsor. Said Bob Berg, press secretary for Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young: “We want one—it’s just a matter of time.”

Adding to the uncertainty is Ontario legislation that would permit drinking only outside gaming areas. For patrons accustomed to free drinks when gambling in Nevada or Atlantic City, that could be quite an adjustment. Still, said Marilyn Churley, Minister of Consumer and Commercial Relations: “I don’t think people go to drink at a table.” Some Windsor residents disagree, and fear that the drinking ban will scare Americans away. “Why would people come here?” asked Windsor cab driver Don Fox, a Las Vegas veteran who insists that tourists will expect free drinks and glitz. “It’s becoming a real

Mickey Mouse operation.” But in Winnipeg, police credit an alcoholfree atmosphere in that city’s casino with helping to keep the criminal element away. “Professional people go elsewhere,” said Staff Sgt. Ross McCorriston.

With the exception of the touted new jobs and influx of tourists, Windsor residents are unclear about what to expect from casino gambling. The findings of a review of the projected impact on crime that Windsor police chief James Adkin prepared in February have not been released. Alfieri, the provincial team leader, is working with police to set up a gaming control commission to regulate procedures for handling money and monitoring games. Said Alfieri, who insists that Windsor can escape the seedier side of gambling seen along U.S. casino strips: ‘We are not going to have that kind of glitz.” For his part, Mayor Hurst admitted to being taken aback by the poverty and crime rates in Atlantic City, the U.S. East Coast gambling capital, when he visited there in March. But Hurst said that from his trip, “we learned what not to do.” There, while the gambling establishments have profited, other areas of the city have decayed. Windsor will force the chosen developer to “complement and not compete with” businesses in the surrounding community, the mayor said.

But the casino’s critics also note that it is being promoted as a boon to I the city at a time when Windsor appears to be bouncing back from the recession without its help. The Big Three automakers are projecting their best sales in several years and other employers are moving into the region. The downtown may simply be dying, say some, because the suburbs are booming. Even Atlantic City casino operator Donald Trump, who decided last week against making a bid to operate in Windsor, warned local people to think twice about the casino plan. Said Trump in a television interview: “Most jurisdictions have rejected it because it does bring a lot of problems.”

Many retailers, too, remain skeptical about the casino’s predicted economic spinoffs. “Gamblers are not known as heavy-duty shoppers,” said Greg Luce, who manages a gaming products store in Devonshire Mall, a suburban shopping centre which was one of three prospective sites for the interim casino. And while Chu is excited at the prospect of an influx of visitors to a casino just four blocks from her restaurant, she plans to stay away from the gaming tables. “It might be fun at first,” she said, “but you can’t win at gambling.” So far, the city of Windsor and the government of Ontario are betting that they can.

DIANE BRADY in Windsor