Hamilton small businesses say no to downtown casino

A downtown casino would harm small business in the heart of the city, says a contingent of Hamilton business owners.
A downtown casino would harm small business in the heart of the city, says a contingent of Hamilton business owners. (iStock)

A group of Hamilton businesses have banded together to let city council know they don’t want to see a casino in the downtown core.

About two-dozen downtown small business owners have drafted a letter to the Gaming Facility Proposal Subcommittee, warning of the adverse effects a casino could have on the lower city.

"I haven’t found anyone on James Street who has been in support of it yet," said Dave Kuruc, the owner of Mixed Media on James Street North, one of the businesses involved.

"A casino will do harm to my business for sure."

The letter outlines the group’s concerns that a casino would at best conserve Hamilton's current status quo, and at worst damage a fragile part of the city. Kuruc wasn’t able to give a comprehensive list of the businesses involved with the letter, and said they were still organizing their numbers.

The group believes downtown Hamilton has turned a corner, the letter reads, a feat helped significantly by the contributions of small businesses in the area. Kuruc says there has been a development upswing downtown that has blossomed just fine without a new gaming facility.

In the letter, the group says they aren't convinced a casino would help current businesses or to attract new ones to the downtown.

"It would likely just keep the status quo," said Lou Molinaro of This Ain’t Hollywood, a bar on James Street North. "I love the idea of inspiring business downtown, but I’m not sold on a casino being the way to do it."

Kuruc took that a step further and said he believes a casino would only benefit hotels or money lending businesses, while killing small business.

Devil in the details

But not everyone is totally against the idea. Robert Keleti, who owns Hamilton Jewellers on James St. N south of Cannon, said he hasn't made up his mind on the issue.

"I'm not, at this time, for or against the casino because I don't know the facts," he said.

"But to be against it right away, without any facts, this is a group who are trying to push their agenda."

Kyle Skinner, the general manager of Koi and Sizzle in Hess Village, says the devil is really in the details when it comes to a downtown casino. 

"This could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on who gets their hands on it," Skinner said. "I think the execution of this is more important than the yes or no answer."

"If they build something nice, it can only help us. We’re certainly happy to provide further entertainment to the downtown core."

City staff have been asked to prepare a report to be submitted to the gaming subcommittee in January, addressing the potential of a hotel and casino development, as well as its expected revenue.

There will also be two public forums on the issue in January — one at Waterdown high school on the 16th and another downtown on the 17th.

The city’s economic development department is currently gathering information for council, said Norm Schleehahn, manager of business development.

"But we don’t have an official position on any location," he said. "We can’t speak for council, but we’re going to give them all the information we can to make an informed decision."

Schleehahn stressed the fact that by March, the OLG needs to know if Hamilton is open to building a casino in the city. "So come March 1, we need all that information compiled."

Looking for nearby answers

The group of downtown business owners draws comparisons to the casino in nearby Brantford in their letter, and says the direct economic benefit for businesses around a casino is almost none.

"The demolition of 41 vacant buildings in 2010 on Colbourne Street, directly across the road from the OLG Brantford Casino, would seem to confirm that," the letter reads.

But Brantford's mayor Chris Friel told CBC Hamilton's Paul Wilson that even though he was originally against the idea of a casino in Brantford (it squeaked through in a referendum by a narrow margin) it has since helped his city.

Brantford gets five per cent of the slot revenues at the facility, and the total payout to the city is now up to nearly $50 million. The casino employs 900 workers, both full and part-time.

Brantford used its first few million from the slots to renovate the Carnegie library in their downtown, then turned it over to Laurier University. The city has since invested another $17 million — sometimes handing over buildings — to bolster Laurier's presence in the core.

Friel admits, "I have to say — no casino, no university."

The Hamilton niche

But to hear some small businesses describe it, a casino just doesn't fit in with the cultural ethos of a resurgent Hamilton downtown.

"As a business owner, I look at the examples of Brantford, Windsor and Niagara Falls, and none of these spots look particularly attractive to me to open a small business in," said Hollie Pocsai, co-owner of downtown craft shop White Elephant.

"They look glitzy and flashy and have that big box perfection quality, but they aren't by any means unique or interesting. Hamilton has something authentic and genuine happening downtown, and a casino would destroy all of that."

Molinaro said he doesn't see a casino benefitting culture, one the things he enjoys most about Hamilton. He says the city needs an intrinsically "Hamilton-centric" experience — something ideally arts-based you can't get in other cities.

"And I don't just say that selfishly because we sell music here," he laughed.

To read the group's letter to Hamilton's Gaming Facility Proposal Subcommittee, click on the box below.