Headlines·Special Report

Brantford casino could be Hamilton's future

Open every day of the year — including Christmas — OLG Brantford Casino is a sensory experience.
Grant Darling, general manager of the Brantford casino, says the casino employs some 850 local workers. The casino will soon be privatized as part of the OLG modernization process. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

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.

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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.


Nov. 30 — city gaming facility subcommittee meeting

Dec. 3— Hamilton public health officials will present a report about a possible casino to the city's board of health

Dec. 13 — city gaming facility subcommittee meeting

February — vote required on whether the city wants a casino

March 31 — OLG lease for slots at Flamboro Downs ends, although the OLG is negotiating a shorter-term lease

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.

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"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.