Councillors vote for Flamborough casino ... with a loophole

Hamilton councillors have stated that they are only willing to consider a casino in Flamboro Downs. At least for now.

Motion leaves room for another Hamilton location if Flamboro Downs isn't viable

Rochelle Martin sits in the audience of a council meeting Thursday holding a sign opposing a casino. Councillors voted for a casino in Flamborough as long as it's a viable site. (Samantha Craggs/CBC) (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Hamilton councillors have stated that they are only willing to consider a casino in Flamboro Downs. At least for now.

Councillors voted at a marathon meeting Thursday that they strongly prefer a casino in Flamborough. They will only consider other sites if Flamboro Downs is found to be "not a viable site."

They have included in the motion the right to veto proposed gaming sites, which the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) has assured them they have the ability to do.

The motion was a compromise between councillors who wanted to limit the location to Flamborough and those who wanted to leave it open.

Flamborough councillor Robert Pasuta, who moved the motion that passed unanimously, said he'd sleep "a little bit better" tonight. But he would have preferred to not leave the loophole there.

"What'll happen is it will cut back on who is actually going to be bidding on this," he said. "I can tell there's more comfort with the horse racing people and around the council table, too."

The city has been grappling with the notion of a casino since last year, when the province announced the end of its Slots at Racetracks program. The OLG also announced a modernization process and offered Hamilton a potential gaming facility.

Coun. Brian McHattie from Ward 1 voted for the motion, but said he didn't feel good about the process. Eight councillors — or half of council — were willing to vote for a downtown casino to keep the $4.4 million in revenue the city gets from the Flamboro Downs slots. And that bothered him.

"We could have easily focused on Flamborough, period, and If we don't get Flamborough we don't get a casino," he said.

Decision was 'the only option'

The motion is "the only option we have here today because of the eight folks who were willing to throw downtown under the bus for a casino," McHattie said.

Coun. Brad Clark from Stoney Creek said afterward that he was one of the eight who favoured a downtown casino over the loss of revenue.

Slot revenue at Flamboro Downs in 2011

Hamiltonians — $30,300,000

Non-Hamiltonians — $25,800,000

Total— $56,100,000

If a downtown casino brought in the same revenue as Flamborough, "I'd be fine with that," he said.

With Greenbelt legislation restricting development at the Flamboro Downs site, he has little faith a casino can happen there.

"We're putting faint hope out that it's going to be Flamboro Downs, and I would be really surprised if it comes down."

Gambling money leaving the city

The vote came after staff presented a more than 400-page report on the potential economic impacts of a casino.

Flamboro Downs provides 176 direct racing jobs, 250 race-day jobs and 3,600 indirect jobs. The city receives about $4.4 million in slot revenue and $150,000 in property taxes, a number that just dropped from $750,000 because of a recent assessment appeal, amounting to the same assessment loss of a mid-sized manufacturer closing, said Norm Schleehahn, manager of business development.

Schleehahn offered other numbers. Hamiltonians spent $78,900,050 gambling in 2011, and only $30,252,719 was spent at Flamboro, he said. The rest went to gaming facilities outside of Hamilton.

As for Flamboro Downs, 54 per cent of its slot revenue ($30,300,000) came from Hamiltonians, while non-Hamiltonians contributed $25,800,000, he said.

According to the process, the OLG will now put out a request for proposals for interested bidders. One local operator, RockHammer, has so far expressed an interest in a downtown casino as part of a hotel and entertainment complex.

RockHammer carries on

RockHammer partner P.J. Mercanti, also of the Carmen's Group, said after the vote that RockHammer will continue working on its proposal. And it will investigate Flamborough.

"I think it was a fair compromise today," Mercanti said of the vote. "It was a smart thing for council to do. It shows tremendous support for Flamborough, but it was important that other options were kept on the table."

City manager Chris Murray said a final gaming facility location will likely not be chosen until early 2015. That timing baffled Coun. Sam Merulla, who wondered why council has felt so rushed by OLG.

"This is the most surreal thing," he said. "I feel like I've just taken hallucinogens. We have jumped through hoops, climbed ladders, and now … this is news to us."

Merulla had planned to introduce a motion for a 2014 referendum, but withdrew it. He said afterward that he has no plans to introduce it in the near future.

Reporter Samantha Craggs tweeted throughout the meeting. Read her coverage here: