Casino bidders tell council they strongly favour a downtown location

A key player in a proposed downtown Hamilton casino and hotel complex says it would look at the possibility of putting it in Flamborough, but it's not the preferred location.
P.J. Mercanti listens to Coun. Brad Clark during the RockHammer presentation to councillors on Wednesday. Numerous councillors asked Mercanti if the group would be willing to put its hotel, casino and entertainment complex in Flamborough. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

A key player in a proposed downtown Hamilton casino and hotel complex says it would look at the possibility of putting it in Flamborough, but it's not the preferred location.

P.J. Mercanti from Carmen's Group, a member of the RockHammer consortium backing the Hard Rock casino proposal for downtown Hamilton, told councillors Wednesday that he'd have to talk to his partners if council would only consider a casino at the Flamboro Downs site.

But the group strongly wants the complex downtown, where it can capitalize on traffic to Copps Coliseum, Hamilton Place, James Street shops and other amenities, he said.

A downtown location would "maximize the investment opportunity and the job creation potential" of the project, Mercanti said.

"It would make more sense downtown than in Flamborough."

RockHammer partners Mercanti and Nick Bontis, along with business owner Dean Collett, presented their plans to the city's general issues committee on Wednesday.

For about two hours, councillors questioned the trio on aspects such as job creation and market research they've done. Numerous councillors asked whether RockHammer would consider building its complex at Flamboro Downs.

If council voted to only have gaming at Flamboro Downs, the partners, which includes the Hard Rock entertainment company, would have to take another look, Mercanti said.

But "our preference is downtown," he said. "Our preference is maximized city-building opportunities."

OLG deadline

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 still wants a gaming facility, and if so, where one could be located.

About 100 people attended Wednesday's meeting, including anti-casino activists Graham Crawford and Chris Cutler, who presented to council after RockHammer.

Several councillors said they were in favour of jobs and investment in Hamilton, but they want gaming to stay at Flamboro Downs.

"I've still got my heart in Flamborough," Coun. Robert Pasuta said. "Flamborough is my ward and I'm not convinced to put it anywhere but in Flamborough."

Proposed components of the entertainment complex:

  • Hard Rock Café-branded luxury hotel with 280 rooms
  • a live music venue
  • multiple bars and restaurants
  • a museum celebrating Canadian music
  • a Waterfall Capital of the World interactive display

Other numbers touted by RockHammer:

  • The development would cost about $200 million.
  • It would likely be 500,000 to 750,000 square feet.
  • The casino would take up about 15 per cent of the complex.
  • It would create the full-time equivalent of 1,200 jobs.

Locating the proposed Hard Rock complex in Flamborough could be problematic, said Tim McCabe, general manager of planning and economic development. The property is protected by greenbelt legislation, and its sewer system couldn't handle a 280-room hotel, he said.

"We would need a revised minister zoning order or a heck of a change in policy to allow a prime commercial complex in the middle of agricultural land," he said.

Coun. Judi Partridge will introduce a motion on Feb. 14 to ask the province for a two-year extension on Flamboro Downs, and for the province to sign a ministerial zoning order to allow a "full gaming facility and ancillary casino uses such as a hotel and restaurants, as well as construction expansion of Flamboro Downs."

Referendum proposal

Coun. Sam Merulla plans to table a motion on Feb. 14, which was originally introduced last fall, to put the casino question to a referendum in 2014.

Mayor Bob Bratina said after the presentation that the development industry is "very sensitive to timing," and the referendum results would not necessarily be binding.

"How long will the partners stay interested and motivated?" he asked Bontis and Mercanti.

"We're very excited and motivated now," Bontis said. "We're frankly sticking our necks out and getting punched in the face. We want to be able to continue with the process."

The meeting turned heated when Collett, who owns Sizzle and Koi in Hess Village, was asked his opinion on referendums.

"In my mind, a referendum is a way for a politician to shirk responsibility," he said. "You guys have a responsibility to do what's right for our community."

Merulla fired back that council had made a decision — to have gaming in Flamborough — and to suggest otherwise the answer was "shirking your intelligence." He also called out Bratina for flip-flopping on issues.

Plan far from concrete

The proposed entertainment complex is only a concept and far from concrete, Bontis said. It would take at least another year to work out the final details.

But RockHammer has gone public to let council know what's possible, Mercanti said.

"We felt it was important to be able to share our vision for what this opportunity could do for the community."

In his presentation, Crawford told councillors that a downtown casino could put "a speed bump" in front of the city's natural progress.

Dr. Nick Kates, acting chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster University, sent councillors a letter Wednesday morning saying a casino could hurt Hamiltonians.

Research shows that the closer someone is to a casino, the more likely they are to have a gambling problem, he said.

"There's a good likelihood the presence of a casino in the downtown area will have an impact on the people around it," he said.