The head of Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission faced tough questions when he met Hamilton city councillors to plead the case for a downtown casino on Friday.
Rod Phillips spoke to council’s gaming facility proposal sub-committee to inform its members what options it has in terms of the possible relocation of the casino at Flamboro Downs to another site in the region. One of the primary options for OLG is downtown Hamilton.
"The market for gaming and lottery has changed in Ontario," he said, citing aging clientele and a decrease in revenues from American tourists.
In the current economic environment, he added, a downtown casino would be the option that would generate the most money, but the OLG will only issue gaming licenses for locations council has approved.
Sam Merulla, councillor for Ward 3, who opposes relocating the casino from Flamboro Downs, said that a downtown facility would compound issues of poverty within the inner city.
"How do we reconcile the fact that where the people are is where the problems are?" he said, addressing both Phillips and Hamilton Mayor Bob Bratina.
OLG director of social responsibility Paul Pellizzari said the OLG's average client is middle class and that the commission directs some gaming revenues to help problem gamblers, including $28 million for addiction-counselling programs province-wide.
Merulla also questioned Phillips about the fate of the racetrack at Flamboro Downs.
Phillips said the decisions about horse-racing are not up to the OLG, but rather the Ontario horse-racing commission.
Lease at Flamboro Downs expires in March
The lease at Flamboro Downs expires in March. The OLG is currently negotiating a short-term lease beyond March that will be transferable to a third-party operator. That operator will be able to offer gaming in Hamilton but will likely not be bound to doing so at Flamboro Downs, the OLG has said.
In April, council voted to back a casino at Flamboro Downs, but has until March 1 to give the OLG its final decision.
Ward 4 Councillor Terry Whitehead expressed worry that if council again recommended Flamborough as its desired casino site, that the private operator could potentially move to another location outside of Hamilton’s municipal boundaries — depriving Hamilton of the revenue it already receives from OLG slots.
The current Flamboro Downs slots bring in $4.4 million to the city coffers each year.
"If we put all of our eggs in one basket, we could lose all of the eggs," Whitehead said.
WIth files from Samantha Craggs