Toronto will not be getting a downtown casino.
Mayor Rob Ford held a press conference Thursday afternoon to declare that he has dropped his push to bring a gaming resort to the city core.
Ford has been a vocal booster of the controversial proposal, arguing in recent months that the development would create "10,000 good paying jobs" and that the province would give the city upwards of $100 million a year for hosting a gambling complex at Exhibition Place or the site of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
But the mayor said Thursday he had no choice but to pull the plug on the proposal because the province has refused to come forward with a firm hosting fee offer, despite his repeated attempts to obtain one from Premier Kathleen Wynne. The city had expected to get a solid number from Queen's Park before the end of April, but Ford said he contacted Wynne Thursday morning and "received no clear answer." In a report released last month, the city manager recommended that council reject anything less that $100 million.
"If the province won't agree to that $100 million, then folks, the deal is dead," said Ford. "We are not going to carry on with the casino debate."
"I think the province has played enough games, and that's it," he continued.
Although he admitted to putting "a lot of blood, sweat and tears" into the casino project since the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation announced its desire to build a new casino in Toronto last March, Ford attempted to distance himself from the proposal.
"Contrary to what many people said, I'm not married to a casino," he said. "I never campaigned on a casino. I'm trying to work with our provincial partners to benefit both the province and the city with extra revenue."
Ford announced that he had asked staff to cancel the special council meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, which he had called two weeks ago to debate the casino question. He said the issue would instead be on the agenda at council's June 11 meeting, where hoped councillors would vote to take no action on a downtown gaming centre.
Even before his announcement however, some councillors, acting on rumours that he would cancel Tuesday's meeting, had already begun circulating a petition to hold the vote as scheduled in order to kill off the casino once and for all. They said Thursday afternoon that the majority of councillors necessary to call a special meeting had already signed.
"We want to make this decision now," said Mike Layton, one of the councillors who signed the petition. "The people of Toronto want their councillors to take a stand, and other councillors want to debate this issue. I see no reason why we should... wait another two weeks and have another delay about this. Let's have the debate, let's finish this off."
Layton said members of the public, councillors, and city staff were all anticipating a meeting next week, and putting it off until next month would only allow casino lobbyists more opportunity to make their case to politicians at Queen's Park and City Hall.
No Casino Toronto, the grassroots group that has led a vigorous campaign against a downtown gaming resort, also said the vote must take place next week.
"We want the vote. We don't consider this a victory," said the group's spokesperson, Maureen Lynett, when reached by phone shortly after Ford's press conference.
"If they don't vote on it now, it can pop up god knows when."
Although Ford's press conference likely signals the end of a year-long fight over the economic and cultural future of Toronto, it has been apparent for weeks that most councillors were opposed to the gaming venture that many felt would cause gridlock, drain the local economy, and increase social problems.
This despite the best efforts of casino giants like MGM and Caesars, who dispatched representatives to unveil glitzy mock-ups of casino complexes and hired lobbyists to conduct a full court press at City Hall in the hopes of winning council members over.
Councillor John Parker surmised that Ford was finally forced into making an about-face because he realized he would never win a council vote.
"He probably saw defeat staring him in the face," said Parker, a conservative council member who opposed the casino plan. "But to be honest and to be fair with him, he has said, I think consistently, that he's been looking for a clear declaration that there would be a sizeable cut for the city of Toronto. That appears now not to be on offer, so he's right not to proceed with the matter."
Parker agreed with the mayor that the province should bear most of the blame for starting the divisive, and ultimately fruitless, debate because it was the Liberal government that floated the casino idea in the first place. It's widely believed that Wynne is much less enthusiastic about the OLG's push to set up new casinos across the province than was her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, who abruptly resigned last fall.
Parker said that that the premier refusing to produce a hosting fee "was clearly a convenient way of bringing the whole thing to an end."
But councillor Adam Vaughan, the most vocal casino opponent on council, countered that it was Ford who squandered city time and resources by buying into the OLG proposal, which many people believed from the get-go was unrealistic. Vaughan scoffed at the mayor's assertion that he had never been "married" to the idea.
"I've never seen a guy be more married to an issue," Vaughan said, "He's practically been the priest, the bride and the groom on this one."
Although the downtown project is now off the table, there remains substantial support on council to expand the OLG's slot operations at Woodbine Racetrack in Etobicoke to include live table games. The mayor and many other councillors have said they would vote to approve such a plan.
Asked at his press conference what will happen to the Woodbine proposal, Ford said, "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it."