The long-anticipated city manager's report on a Toronto casino dropped with a thud Monday morning, April 8.
Anyone who bothered to read the city's planning analysis appended to Joe Pennachetti's 22-page document could come to only one conclusion: a casino complex downtown will muck up the good vibe we have going in the core.
To quote: "It is City Planning's opinion that a new casino is not an essential land use in Toronto's downtown - ‘essential' meaning vitally important for revitalizing the area or fundamental to sustain what is widely perceived to be one of the most successful downtowns in North America."
But no matter. Pennachetti's report attempts to soft-sell an integrated entertainment complex (IEC) at three possible locations: the Ex, at the site of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Front or at expanded facilities at Woodbine Racetrack.
The document spells out 43 conditions, among them some surprises: the casino complex the city envisions is about half the size (135,000 square feet) of the 250,000-square-foot facility proposed by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) and its Vegas partners.
The deeper you read, however, the more Pennachetti's report resembles an old salesman's trick. Its conditions offer only the illusion of protection. They're meant to seduce council into signing on the dotted line.
And that's where things get slippery. Once council opens the door to accepting bids, the city's at the mercy of developers. The potential for appeals to the Ontario Municipal Board, for example, looms large, as do lawsuits if disputes were to arise. And they always do.
Casino operators can be extremely aggressive when it comes to getting their way, especially after they've blown tens of millions selling you on the idea in the first place.
And on this one we've been spun from day one.
The report contains some nice words about a complex "more suitable for Toronto's downtown" - to wit, "an urban entertainment complex which would limit the casino-related food, beverage and retail uses to 100,000 square feet."
There's even a proposed Toronto Casino Social Contract, presumably to mitigate its harmful effects. And, oh yes, the all-important convention centre component is now supposedly the raison d'être for a casino in the first place, right up there with those hyped promises of job, jobs, jobs - mostly low-paying it should be noted.
At first glance it's easy to be lulled into a false sense that the report's authors have the city's best interests at heart. It makes the idea of a casino complex sound almost, um, benign.
To someone dropping in from outer space, it would all sound perfectly reasonable, but those of us living on planet Earth and watching the orgy of lobbyists at City Hall and Queen's Park goosing each other know better.
Some close to the MGM bid have suggested that Pennachetti's conditions would sway council's support, which right now is very much up in the air given the confusion over how much Toronto stands to gain from casino hosting fees.
Another theory is that the conditions are too many, the bar set too high, for any potential casino operator to accept. But that's wishful thinking.
On the contrary, the document is all about selling council on a fantasy - that it can approve a casino half the size of the one OLG says is required to turn a profit and still reap $100 million plus in hosting fees from the province. If that sounds too good to be true, it is.
The city manager is asking the public and the mayor's executive, which meets next week to discuss his report, to fly blind. We don't even know what our cut from hosting fees would be. The city expects $148 million a year. OLG was prepared to offer $50 million in March when the two sides were negotiating. But that was before Premier Kathleen Wynne stepped in to say there would be no special consideration for Toronto. Under the current OLG revenue-sharing formula, the cut we could expect would be more like - wait for it - $15 million.
The debate over hosting fees is a red herring anyway. Compared to the social costs of a casino, they pale.
We know there's collateral damage in spades from these behemoths. Medical Officer of Health David McKeown has told us so. But the report acknowledges this in only an offhand way, urging the province to set aside more money from the proceeds of gambling to promote responsible gambling.
Public sentiment has also been cut out of the equation.
The public's input, offered at consultations, had little impact on his overview. Some 71 per cent of the 17,780 residents who filled out feedback forms said they are opposed to a casino. But the report dismisses that, saying "the input is not to be interpreted as demographically or statistically representative of the views of the Toronto population."
Instead, the staff report relies on an Environics poll of 902 residents and interviews with 19 organizations to justify making a business case for a casino. Even there, only four out of 10 would visit a casino if it were built.
Was it a coincidence that Mayor Rob Ford launched a pre-emptive PR strike, issuing an open letter on why he wants a casino, the day before Pennachetti's report was released? Some passages in his missive read like they were lifted straight from the report. It, too, engages in a little misdirection.
The mayor calls a casino a "golden opportunity... that shouldn't be judged on emotional or partisan rhetoric, but on facts." All of a sudden, getting a bigger and better convention space has become the rationale for a casino complex.
"Toronto currently ranks 33rd in North America for convention business," the mayor wrote. Not exactly.
The Convention Centre ranks 33rd on the continent in terms of overall size, but Toronto rates in the top 10 in a number of convention categories.
The city manager's report says a new convention centre could be more lucrative than a casino. So why aren't we building that instead? According to Pennachetti, the private sector isn't interested - unless, of course, it can get a casino out of the deal. It's crystal-clear whose interests that would serve.
OLG and the city play numbers game
250,000 square feet
Size of casino OLG envisions as part of an integrated mega-complex
135,000 square feet
Size of the casino proposed in Monday's city manager's report
850,000 square feet
Amount of food, beverage and retail space OLG envisions
100,000 square feet
Amount proposed in the city report
Number of hotel rooms (OLG)
Number of hotel rooms (city)
Up to 6,000
Number of parking spaces (OLG)
2,950 to 3,375
Number of parking spaces (city)
Number of slot machines in a downtown casino (OLG)
Number of slots (city)