Sault Ste. Marie residents debate casino future

In Sault Ste. Marie, talk of a new casino is stirring up debate the city had back in the 1990s before the current, temporary casino was built.

OLG looks to expand casinos in Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie and North Bay

Sault Ste. Marie city councilor Steve Butland stands in front of the casino in that city. (Erik White/CBC)

In Sault Ste. Marie, talk of a new casino is stirring up debate the city had back in the 1990s before the current, temporary casino was built.

Steve Butland was the mayor of Sault Ste. Marie when it first became a casino town and still can’t get around the fact that the casino in his city is a tent.

"It’s a pretty fancy, elaborate tent. It’s not a bad looking casino," he said. "[The] unemployment rate in Sault Ste. Marie was 19 per cent at the time, so we were grasping for straws."

Predictions about the Sault being overrun with gangsters and prostitutes never came true, Butland said.

The province is expected to select the company that will run the northern Ontario casinos by the end of the year — and it will decide what it does in the Sault and whether it will keep operating the 14-year-old temporary casino.

Butland said he hopes the new company the province is bringing in to run the casino will build a new, permanent casino, with a hotel and tourist attraction as well.

He does expect 300 people who work at the casino will make less money.

"When a private operator comes in, my guess is, the wages will go down, not up," he said.

‘We learn to accept it’

Not everyone in the city believes a new gambling facility will come to Sault Ste. Marie.

A jewelry store owner in the downtown has heard of talk of a bigger, fancier casino for years.

Richard Rosset, a business owner in Sault Ste. Marie, says he's not against casinos, but thinks more can be done to prevent addicition. (Erik White/CBC)

"It never happened and I actually don’t believe it’s going to happen, not for a long time," Richard Rosset said.

One of Rosset’s employees who was addicted to gambling stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from his store.

He said he’s not against casinos, but does think more can be done to prevent addiction.

"The bar owner, unfortunately, has to be more cautious in how he’s serving and I think the casino has to be more cautious in how they serve their product," he explained.

Meanwhile, a real estate agent who headed up the "No Campaign" in the Sault casino referendum of 1996 said his feelings haven’t changed, but added he thinks the city has gotten used to the casino.

"It’s very much like any other kind of social issue that’s undesirable," Paul Matthewson said. "We learn to accept it."

Stay tuned to CBC Radio One in Sudbury and northeastern Ontario all this week for more on this story. Our series "The Big Gamble’" airs at 7:10 a.m daily until Thursday on Morning North. Parts of the series will also be on CBC’s afternoon show Points North, as well as on the regional news.