Passionate crowd packs Hamilton casino meeting

Emotions were high at Hamilton city hall Thursday night during a public forum about a potential casino.

A mixture of 'yes' and 'no' signs fill council chambers

John Schuurman (left) and Jonathan Pragashpathy, students at Redeemer University College, hold signs protesting a Hamilton casino at a public forum at city hall on Thursday. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Emotions were high at Hamilton city hall Thursday night during a public forum about a potential casino.

A crowd of about 400 packed into the cramped council chambers and spilled into the foyer. Some held red "NO!" signs. Others held yellow "YES" signs with phrases such as "Yes to jobs" and "I'm all in."

Some audience members held pro-casino signs. (Samantha Craggs/CBC) (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"We're having a tough discussion," said Matthew Green, who organized a rally against a downtown casino before the meeting. "As long as we keep it respectful and keep the tone appropriate amongst neighbours, it's all part of the game, really."

The crowd was respectful but vocal. Many residents shouted their stances as city manager Chris Murray moderated the forum.

"We want jobs," yelled one resident holding a "yes" sign.

"We already have them," called someone from the other side of the room.

At one point, a man in the standing-room-only crowd outside the council doors interrupted a speech by Paul Burns from the Canadian Gaming Association.

"Marketing," the man shouted. "Marketing to the poor!"

It was the second of two public forums to educate and get feedback on an issue Hamilton councillors have faced since last year.

Flamboro Downs future at risk

In March 2012, the province cancelled its Slots at Racetracks program, putting horseracing and slots at Flamboro Downs in jeopardy. The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) wants to hear by March 1 if Hamilton wants a gaming facility, and if so, where it could go. A private operator would run it. Carmen's Inc., who will take over operation of the Hamilton Convention Centre this year, will present a casino-related proposal to councillors in February.

Crowds packed the foyer outside council chambers. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Thursday was the first time the "YES" signs have appeared at meetings. Liz Temko and John Millward, both of Hamilton, said they support a casino for the jobs it would bring.

"Hamilton needs more jobs. There's too much of an unemployment rate," Temko said.

Millward wants "more jobs available, and another reason for people to come to Hamilton."

Residents asked questions in person and over the phone as the meeting was broadcast live by Cable 14. They had a mixture of viewpoints.

'Fear mongering'

Rob Moscardini called arguments from the "no" side "fear mongering." If we make decisions based on the small percentage of gamblers who develop addictions, we would also close liquor stores, he said.

"I believe in freedom of choice," he said. "To deal strictly with a minority to prohibit me from gambling is not freedom of choice."

Lawyer Ned Nolan, on the other hand, said he "can't believe the frenzied pursuit of profit often cited as development and progress has reached such a peak in our society."

"You have a job," someone called to Nolan as he took his seat.

Dubious economic benefits

Hannah Holmes, a McMaster University economics professor, was part of the seven-member panel. Holmes told the audience that a casino would not make up for lost industrial revenue suffered by the city.

Casinos are only benefits when they bring in out-of-town tourists and dollars, Holmes said. She does not predict a Hamilton casino would do that.

In fact, a casino development could take away from local restaurants and retail, she said.

When your casino draws in local people, "you're not spending new money," she said. "Economies thrive when you can create new money. If you're just substituting money from one area to another area, that's not new money."

The OLG, meanwhile, told the crowd that the corporation contributes to health care, education and various charities.