Talk·Point of View

Larry Di Ianni: The casual gambler

Former city mayor Di Ianni is a participant in CBC Hamilton's Nov. 29 live chat: Should Hamilton take a gamble on a casino? Read his argument in favour of a casino here.

Like many Hamiltonians, I am a casual gambler.

How do I define this pastime? Occasional poker games with friends at each others' houses where the stakes are moderate and the laughter is excessive.

Or dinner followed by visits to one of Niagara's casinos for a monthly (more or less) contribution to the one-eyed bandits or blackjack tables.

A third, much rarer definition, might include a trip to Las Vegas, or as I did just recently, to Lake Tahoe, Nevada, also a gambling Mecca. This was my first visit to spectacular Tahoe and I've only been to Vegas three times.

Having established my bona fides as a gambler — albeit casual — I am therefore puzzled by the timid response to a casino opportunity in the city of Hamilton. In searching for answers, I ask myself these three questions:

Can a city that celebrates as front-page news a grocery store and a new restaurant in its downtown, then afford to snub a mega-development opportunity presented by a full-fledged casino-hotel?

Should a city whose downtown reality includes too-frequent criticism by outsiders — like the visiting golf aficionado who recently lauded the Canadian Open venue while disparaging the core's disrepair — blind itself to the horrible implications of these kinds of unsolicited assessments?

Finally, can a city that has invested millions of tax dollars for the core in grants, property purchases, revitalization efforts, increased police presence, and more, now stop the momentum which has been perceptibly building over the last ten years because of casino skittishness?

If the answer to these questions is a resounding 'No,' as it should be, then surely city council and the citizens whom council represents must seize the moment and pursue vigorously a potential downtown casino.

Yet, rather than bold leadership reaching for the brass ring, Hamilton is doing what it does frequently and best, depressingly; it is setting the groundwork for a divisive fight over the issue.

Some councilors are already expressing opposition to the proposal. Others, joined by a local MPP and provincial leader, want to duck the leadership required by deferring to a referendum; and all members of council, even the supportive ones, favour keeping the half-casino in its current Flamboro location where the structure sits majestically in the middle of nowhere, relatively speaking. 

Hamilton bureaucrats are the only vocal ones who see positive implications for the city by relocating a casino to the core. Political leadership seems to be hiding or non-existent, and that never bodes well for making things happen.

Why this timidity?

Understandably, it has to do with some of the social-moral issues around gambling as well as what some urbanists see as the corrosive presence of casinos in communities. Read some of Richard Florida's disparaging remarks about a casino in Toronto. These criticisms and issues are real and must be acknowledged to be so.

However, if we perch our purity of motive on the high moral ground that not having a casino downtown exculpates us from aiding and abetting an immoral enterprise, think again. We have already crossed that Rubicon. By supporting a casino in Flamboro and having lived off the avails of its 'immorality' to the tune of $4.5M each year, we can't lay claim to any high purpose. If we do, we are fooling ourselves by the hypocrisy.

As for the urbanists, who want none but the highest order of development for the core, I have only one question: where is it?  Other than Vrancor and Darko Vranich who is putting his dollars where his mouth is, there has been too little private investment in the core to make a difference. What investment has occurred has been mostly fuelled by public dollars. Others, such as Treble Hall, have been welcome additions. More should happen and are invited to come, casino or not. There is plenty of room for all options.

In fact, that's the point. Let's not oversell what a casino can do for our city.  It isn't the answer to our downtown woes; it is part of the answer.

We will only see the full impact of a vibrant downtown when we factor in the cumulative effects of all these component parts: restaurants, grocery stores, Lister Block-type restorations, Health Centre, condo developments, waterfront development, safe, walk-able streets, arts scene, Crawls (super or otherwise), funky new venues, good public transit (LRT in particular), the NHL at Copps along with the Bulldogs and a beautiful casino-hotel presence for those who enjoy a night out of moderate, responsible, casual gambling and the 'name' entertainers that casinos attract.

Why should Hamilton deserve any less?

Larry Di Ianni was the mayor of Hamilton between 2003 and 2006. He was previously a high school teacher and principal. Di Ianni is a panelist in CBC Hamilton's live chat: Should Hamilton take a gamble on a casino?