Sitting tidy and groomed between Colborne to Dalhousie streets, Harmony Square is a symbol of Brantford's new downtown.
The square is home to year-round events. It holds a skating rink in the winter and a splash pad in the summer.
Built in 2008, the square is a far cry from the downtown Brantford of old. Fifteen years ago, ramshackle buildings lined the main streets and vacancies were so high that film crews used it as the scene of an abandoned town in a horror film.
To hear the city tell the story, this is what a casino can buy — and a vision of what Hamilton could do if it spends its casino money wisely.The city of Brantford has invested more than $14 million of its casino money in its downtown. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)
Built in 1999, Brantford's OLG Casino earned $112 million last year. Each year, the city gets about $3.4 million, or five per cent of the slot machine revenue.
That money is put into a capital investment fund the city has used for property improvement loans and projects such as Harmony Square. Since 1999, the city has spent $14,162,999 of its $48,668,444 in casino money on improving the downtown.
“The casino has had a very positive impact on downtown Brantford,” said David Prang, chair of the Downtown Business Improvement Area (BIA). “Without the assistance of the casino and the revenues the city receives from it, (Harmony Square) wouldn't have been created.”
Brantford's casino is located near downtown in a once-empty building on Icomm Drive.
When it opened, many thought it would draw tourists from across Ontario. But that hasn't happened. The casino had 1.34 million visits in 2011, and most of its customers are from a 50-kilometre radius, said Grant Darling, the casino's general manager.
The casino parking lot is packed 365 days a year — even on Christmas. But its attendees don't tend to visit surrounding businesses, Prang said.
“The casino itself is the destination. We're not seeing a whole lot of spillover.”
But the benefit isn't in the foot traffic, Prang said. It's in the way that $3.4 million is invested. Harmony Square and an improved streetscape bring more people downtown. The casino also employs about 800 people, and many of them live downtown, he said.
“Employers of over 500 people in any community is huge,” Prang said. “The casino is one of our largest employers.”
Mayor Chris Friel, initially a casino opponent, credits the facility for downtown Brantford's transition.
Friel has talked with many municipalities in the same position as Hamilton — weighing whether to allow a stand-alone gaming facility.
Any city that accepts should not put the money into its operating budget, Friel said.
“I tell everybody that this is found money. You use that money to leverage projects.”
'Having a casino is like peeling an onion. Some parts of it will make you cry, but you have to go through it to get to the good parts.'— John O'Neill
Downtown Brantford benefited from the arrival of Wilfrid Laurier University, which opened a liberal arts campus in 1999 with 39 students. Now it has more than 3,000.
But the city used casino money to accelerate that project too, Friel said.
“There is a direct line between the casino and the revitalization of downtown.”
John O'Neill has owned Brant Stereo on Market Street since 1973. He sees the positives and negatives of the casino.
He's seen casino money help revitalize downtown Brantford, which pleases him.
“The town has changed dramatically in the last 10 or 15 years,” he said. “There's very little in the way of older buildings or decaying buildings downtown. In fact, if you wanted to buy property downtown, you'd be hard pressed to find something to buy.”
O'Neill hasn't experienced an increase in crime since 1999. But he knows the downsides of casinos, such as gambling addiction and its impact on families.
“Having a casino is like peeling an onion,” he said. “Some parts of it will make you cry, but you have to go through it to get to the good parts.”
Since the casino opened, the city has also spent $2.5 million on a visitor and tourism centre, $7,143,000 on the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre and $1,050,000 on a waterfront master plan.For the period December 1999 – April 2012, the City of Brantford has received $48,668,444 from 5% of slot revenue.
The city of Hamilton currently gets $4.4 million per year from the OLG slots at Flamboro Downs, or $49 million since 2000.
About $15 million of that has gone to a drainage and channel project in Flamborough, and $13 million over the years went to reducing the tax levy in Flamborough. That ended in 2008.
Since then, the money has gone into the city's general budget, resulting in a decrease in taxes of roughly 0.7 per cent, said Rob Rossini, Hamilton's manager of finance.