Group announces plans for downtown Hamilton casino

RockHammer Inc. announced plans for a casino in downtown Hamilton at a highly touted invite-only press conference on Monday.
P.J. Mercanti, co-owner of Carmen's Group, announces a proposal for a $200-million entertainment complex in downtown Hamilton. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

A group of local investors unveiled a plan on Monday to create a $200-million entertainment complex, including a casino, to downtown Hamilton.

According to the newly formed consortium RockHammer Inc., in addition to a gaming facility the development would include a Hard Rock Café-branded luxury hotel, a live music venue, multiple bars and restaurants and a museum celebrating Canadian music.

"This entertainment destination has been conceived by Hamiltonians, to be operated by Hamiltonians, financed by Hamiltonians and finally to be enjoyed by Hamiltonians," P.J. Mercanti, co-owner of Carmen's Group, told a by-invitation-only crowd at Sizzle nightclub in Hess Village.

Monday's announcement featured table games, live jazz music and cocktails. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

"Moreover, it will become one of the marquee entertainment districts in Ontario, and will welcome people from all over the province and conventioneers from all over the country and around the world."

Nick Bontis, a McMaster business professor who is a member of the consortium, said the project would create 1,200 permanent jobs and put $10 million into city coffers.

"We want to give the city a windfall, a new form of revenue where now it currently does not exist," Bontis said.

Bontis added that the complex would use local suppliers where possible, which he said would infuse an additional $15 million annually into the local economy.

Partnership with Hard Rock International

The event also served to formally introduce the partnership between RockHammer and Hard Rock International, a Florida-based firm that operates music-themed restaurants, hotels and casinos worldwide.

Eddie Lynn, the director Hard Rock International's casino division, explained how his company uses pop culture to attract clientele. 

"We're very much a musical company," he said. "The brand makes a lot of difference to people when they decide what they want to do."

Mercanti said Hard Rock's involvement represented a "game-changer" for the city and said a Hard Rock-branded facility would be a "perfect fit" among Hamilton's other cultural and entertainment institutions.  

"We may have built this city on steel, but we will rebuild this city on rock 'n' roll," Mercanti proclaimed, invoking a 1985 hit by the American rock group Starship.

Addressing concerns

Both Mercanti and Bontis addressed the issues highlighted by critics who oppose a downtown casino.

Bontis downplayed the arguments of those who believe a downtown casino would prey on low-income residents and those with gambling addictions.

"People online will have you think that homeless people will spend their last earned loonie in a casino whose proceeds are then used to line the pockets of some multinational or a global corporate Goliath," he said.

The average casinogoer, he said, actually earns $90,000 per year and gambles recreationally. He added that the consortium would invest in counselling services for the small minority of patrons who are problem gamblers.

And speaking to concerns of critics who say a downtown casino would be a drain to Hamilton's burgeoning arts scene, Mercanti said the complex would actually be a boon to the city's creative types.

He said a live music lounge would feature local musicians five nights a week, and added that the provincial government uses casino revenue to fund arts grants.

Council decision

Hamilton has been debating a possible casino since last year. The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commissions' lease to operate 801 slot machines at Flamboro Downs expires on March 31.

The corporation wants the city to pass a motion by March 1 saying whether Hamilton wants a gaming facility, and if so, where it could be located.

When asked whether the Hard Rock casino project would still be on the table if council were to approve a casino located outside the downtown, P.J. Mercanti said, "We would explore any scenario that would allow us to achieve our objectives.

"Obviously, if there is a council 'no' vote to a downtown casino, then we would examine how that would impact our investment opportunity."