Open every day of the year — including Christmas — OLG Brantford Casino is a sensory experience.
Rows of slot machines flash millions of bright lights in every direction. Strains of music compete with each other. There's music on the overhead radio. Robotic music streams from the games.
In the poker room at the back, players huddle at the tables in groups of 10 under low lighting, their faces fixed in concentration. The clicking sound of chips fills the room.
This is an entertainment hub, the OLG says. And it could be Hamilton's future.
Currently, Hamilton has 801 slots at Flamboro Downs through the Slots at Racetracks program, which the province discontinued this year. By late February, council will have to tell the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation whether it welcomes gaming beyond the Flamboro Downs.
If council votes to proceed, the OLG will choose an operator through a request for proposals (RFP) process. Tim McCabe, Hamilton's manager of economic development, said recently that a handful of operators have already expressed interest.
In Brantford, there's an overhaul happening too. Since the casino opened in 1999, the OLG has operated it. It will soon be run by a private operator also bidding in an RFP process, although when the change will happen is not currently known.
The current general manager is Grant Darling, who came to Brantford from Ceasars Windsor. When it comes to the Brantford casino, Darling makes a quiet but consistent case.
Firstly, it's one of the steadiest businesses in town. The casino is open 365 days a year and the parking lot is consistently packed.
The facility only goes dark from 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve until noon on Christmas Day, and when it reopens, “there's a lineup,” Darling said.
Secondly, the casino, which has 534 slot machines and 55 table games, employs about 850 Brantford area residents. (Seven, however, were laid off earlier this year.) That ranges from table game dealers to servers in the Getaway restaurant, to security and the technical jobs required to maintain thousands of pieces of machinery.
Most of the jobs are unionized, Darling said. And locals with no casino experience are hired and trained to be table game dealers, among other roles.
“These are good paying jobs that we can train people to do,” he said. “That's a great boost to any town in this economic climate.”
Thirdly, there's the purchasing power. Whenever possible, the casino buys local, and that has contributed $17 million to the economy since 1999, he said.
But other say there are downsides. Local addictions counsellors say they see gambling addicts drawn in by the casino. A recent Hamilton study shows that there is a small number of low-income residents who spend a lot of money at casinos.
Coun. Jason Farr, who represents the downtown, is still formulating his stance.
He has done phone surveys and public meetings with residents. Every time he attends an event, he asks the question: do you support a casino, and if you do, do you support it downtown?The busy parking lot at the Brantford casino on a Thursday afternoon. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)
Feedback so far has been about 65 per cent against, Farr said.
“I hear don't mess with the momentum currently on the go, that a casino could stymie the smaller businesses,” he said. “There are quite a few good arguments for and quite a few against.”
Council reaffirmed its stance earlier this year that it prefers to keep gaming at Flamboro Downs. If there was a vote tomorrow, Coun. Bernie Morelli said he would stick to that.
“I've been happy with the setup that currently exists,” said Morelli. “But I think there's a broader picture that needs to be reviewed and I will certainly keep an open mind.”
Constituent feedback, Morelli said, has been “about 50/50,” although the anti side tends to be more adamant.
So far, 37 municipalities have expressed interest in either continuing to host gaming or to be a new host, OLG spokesperson Tony Bitonti said.
North Bay, Kenora and Belleville have voted in favour. Toronto is still debating the issue. Ottawa has voted in favour of moving its Slots at Racetracks site downtown, and Kingston has said it's open to the opportunity if a private operator wants to move OLG Casino Thousand Islands, Bitonti said.
So far, 37 Ontario municipalities have expressed interest in a casino. Others have turned it down. Here's what four other cities are doing.
Burlington council voted against a casino. It wasn’t a hard decision and there was little discussion on it, said Mayor Rick Goldring. "It just doesn’t fit the type of community that we are," he said. "There are casinos all over the place, from Niagara Falls to Brantford. And if people really want to gamble, they can gamble online."
Belleville passed a resolution this fall in favour of a casino. The city held a public meeting and a vote on its website, which saw about 65 per cent in favour, said Mayor Neil Ellis. “None of the people against it could bring any documented proof of any negatives,” he said. “We couldn’t find any empirical data on it at all that deals with Canada.” Like many Ontario municipalities, Belleville sought advice from Brantford on the issue.
North Bay council agreed in principle to a casino, says Coun. Sean Lawlor. It likes the idea of the jobs and money coming back to the municipality. Busloads of residents already make a two-hour journey to Casinorama in Rama, Ont. each week. “We’re viewing it positively from a number of perspectives,” Lawlor said. North Bay sought advice from Brantford.
Kenora council voted in October in favour of a casino, hotel and convention centre in the northern community of about 15,000. The town had five public meetings and most residents were in favour, Canfield said. “I really had mixed emotions,” he said. “I’m opposed to casinos. I think it’s a horrible way of getting tax dollars. It upsets me to see people be taken advantage of over a weakness.” But Canfield agreed so long as it was attached to a hotel and convention centre and it wasn’t downtown. Kenora also consulted with Brantford.