Flamboro Downs deal with OLG should end casino, says city councillor

Councillor says Flamboro Downs should be the only gaming facility in Hamilton.

A casino downtown is not in the public interest, says Merulla

Flamboro Downs has reached an agreement with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) to continue operating its slots for the foreseeable future, but what that deal means to the ongoing debate about a casino in Hamilton is still up for discussion.

After the announcement about the agreement between Flamboro Downs and the OLG was made on Saturday, Ward 4 councilor Sam Merulla told The Hamilton Spectator that the deal effectively brought the downtown casino discussion to an end.

"From my perspective, it (the casino debate) should be over and I look forward to it being over," Merulla told The Spec.

When contacted by CBC Hamilton, Merulla clarified his position.

"I didn't say that the debate is over. I said it should be over," said Merulla. 

The reasons are twofold, said Merulla: Flamboro Downs makes money and a downtown casino is contrary to overall public health.

Merulla: Don't listen to "greedy" OLG

"I think that at this point we've all realized that the Flamboro site is very profitable. It makes $140 million annually," said Merulla. 

"That's where a casino belongs," said Merulla, adding later, "our public health officer Dr. Richardson said that it's not in the interest of public health to have a casino in downtown Hamilton." 

In December 2012, Hamilton's medical officer of health Dr. Elizabeth Richardson presented a report to council that indicated higher concentrations of problem gambling occur in areas surrounding a casino. She also made suggestions about how a casino could mitigate those negative effects, for example by limiting operating hours, among other recommendations.

"The evidence clearly suggests it's not in the interests of public health," said Merulla, referencing the report. "Why would we be listening to a greedy OLG, and glorified DJs and caterers?"

When someone with Dr. Richardson's medical credentials comes forward in support of a casino downtown, Merulla said he will pay attention. But he's not swayed by the views of those with "monetary interests driving an agenda." 

"Shame on those who are not acting on behalf of public health."

'Debate isn't over'

OLG spokesperson Tony Bitonti doesn't think the casino kerfuffle is resolved by the Flamboro deal, however.

"It really doesn't," end the tumultuous debate about whether or not downtown Hamilton should build a casino, said Bitonti when contacted by phone by CBC Hamilton on Monday morning. 

What the lease agreement does do is give Flamboro Downs the legal right to continue operating on a "short-term lease," said Bitonti.

That agreement should last three to five years, he added.

The OLG's next move will be to seek out a "private sector operator" in the coming months to take over the lease at Flamboro, said Bitonti.

That private sector operator, which should be in place by early 2014, will be chosen by the OLG, and would take over the day-to-day operations of the facility. The OLG would continue to monitor gaming integrity and marketing, as well as other aspects of the site but would essentially hand over the running of the Downs to the private sector operator.

The lease agreement also give both the OLG, the city of Hamilton and the future private sector operator the time and opportunity to "take a hard look at Flamboro Downs to see if it will work," said Bitonti.

When asked what private sector operator means exactly, Bitonti offered the hypothetical examples of MGM or Caesar's as large-scale operators that could launch a bid.

Once selected, that operator will decide how viable Flamboro Downs is as a long-term gaming facility.

"That private sector operator will decide [based on their business plan] whether or not they want to stay there…once the private sector operator is chosen, a discussion about location will emerge," said Bitonti.

While that "discussion" could only confirm Flamborough as the appropriate place for slots and gaming, it could also give the city time to build a casino elsewhere.

"If something were to be built in downtown Hamilton it will be at least two to three years [before its completed]," said Bitonti.

Bitonti added that the discussion about potential locations, should it come up, would include three parties: the OLG, the private sector operator, and city council.

"All three parties have to be in agreement," said Bitonti.

When asked if this new deal with Flamboro Downs and the potential for a private sector operator to present new plans for gaming in the city will only deepen the casino debate, Bitonti answered: "Oh, yeah."


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