Gambling debate a done deal? Don't bet on it

A Wednesday council vote on the Rideau Carleton Raceway revived arguments about the effects of expanding gambling in Ottawa — and gave hints of debates to come.

Hard Rock takes over raceway gambling operations this week, but future plans could spark controversy

Hard Rock International was granted approval this week to take over the OLG slots at the Rideau Carleton Raceway. (Supplied)

Hard Rock International officially took over the gambling operations at the Rideau Carleton Raceway this week.

This was completely expected, since the entertainment conglomerate announced in May it would be partnering with the raceway to run the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) slots there, as well as eventually build a hotel and new casino and potentially invest $320 million in the complex.

Hard Rock was also expected to bring in 21 gaming tables, an addition approved by the previous council in 2011, although the tables were never actually installed. 

There was just one final hurdle — one that became the main event at Wednesday's council meeting, even though city staff, Mayor Jim Watson, and a number of councillors considered it a mere technicality.

And although Hard Rock's takeover passed easily in a 19-to-four vote — with Diane Deans, Jeff Leiper, Catherine McKenney and Tobi Nussbaum voting against — it did revive arguments surrounding gaming in Ottawa, and hinted at debates to come.

'Flown this so under the radar': Deans

The province requires city council to do two things: approve the raceway as a gambling site, and then both seek public input and provide a written description of what that input looked like and what it actually said.

One of the key points of contention was whether the city had met that provincially-required consultation criteria.

The mayor and city staff said they had. Back in 2012 and 2013, they claimed — during a larger discussion about whether Ottawa should bid for a downtown casino —  there were five finance committee meetings where the public could have voiced their opinions, before council ultimately voted to keep gambling at the raceway. 

The city's own report states those meetings "were not for the purpose of seeking input" under the provincial regulation, but staff concluded that because they spoke to the same issue, close enough.

City councillor Diane Deans said there has not been 'meaningful public consultation' on Hard Rock International's takeover of the gambling operations at the raceway. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

In late August, the city launched an online consultation asking if people were in favour of gaming at Rideau Carleton, which mostly just led to confusion as the raceway has been a gaming site for 19 years. And there was yet another finance committee meeting last week.

But some councillors weren't buying that approach as properly seeking public input.

"This is not meaningful public consultation," said Deans, who has been an vocal opponent of expanded gambling. "We've flown this so under the radar."

We don't know what residents feel about gambling

Deans also wanted to know why council didn't get a copy of the written description of the consultation, particularly the summary of public input.

The answer given at Wednesday's council meeting was vague. But the truth is there hasn't been any formal public consultation about how Ottawa residents feel about expanding gambling. There have been no scientific polls or surveys.

The largest public meeting on the issue was the finance committee held in October 2012 to gauge whether Ottawa should express an interest "in principle" in expanded gambling.

More than 30 public delegations showed up — including a number of pro-casino delegates invited by the mayor's office — to make presentations. Still, three-quarters of those delegates pleaded with councillors to vote against expanding gambling. 

Council went ahead anyway.

In fact, there wasn't any consultation on adding those 21 gaming tables back in 2011. The item was walked onto the council agenda, meaning there wasn't even an opportunity to discuss it at committee.

More debate to come

Back in 2013, the prevailing feeling seemed to be that if there had to be gambling in Ottawa, it should stay at the Rideau Carleton Raceway.

There were fears that losing gambling there could affect both the horse-racing industry and rural jobs.

I think we all know they're going to come back and ask for more.- Coun. Keith Egli on Hard Rock's gaming plans

And if we were just talking about the raceway keeping its existing 1,250 slots, councillors likely wouldn't be too upset. But as Coun. Keith Egli said Wednesday of Hard Rock: "I think we all know they're going to come back and ask for more."

Hard Rock hasn't applied to the city for any expansions yet. And the casino operator has agreed to talk with the city's public health folks about how to offer gambling responsibly.

Still, many at the city are gearing up for a renewed battle over expanded gaming. Ottawa Public Health is already updating its five-year-old study on the social effects of gambling. A new set of councillors appear ready to tackle the issue vociferously, while veterans who appeared uncomfortable voting in favour of a new casino the last time around will — we hope — have learned a few lessons. 

So yes, the newly-minted Hard Rock Casino has approval to take over gambling in this town, and even add blackjack tables.

But is this deal done? Don't bet on it.