Paul Wilson: Brantford mayor on casinos – "I was wrong."

The casino arrived in Brantford more than a dozen years ago. Now some want to see gambling in downtown Hamilton too. What advice does our neighbour's mayor have to offer?
Expositor Place, an $11-million student residence, is just about complete in downtown Brantford. The city kicked in $450,000 to preserve the facade of the 1895 building. (Reg Beaudry/ urbanicity)

Eating crow is a hard thing to do. It’s especially indigestible for politicians.

But on the matter of a casino in his town, Brantford mayor Chris Friel is ready to go there. "People are well within their right to say, ‘I told you so.’ And I’d have to take it."

Right now the province is overhauling the gambling game. It doesn’t want to run the slots and poker tables anymore, but it sure plans to be extracting a big cut from the private interests who take over.

Some say this is the time for a casino in downtown Hamilton, the answer to all our prayers. Others say a casino would be the end of the world.

So we’re in Brantford today, where gambling came to town nearly 13 years ago.

A young mayor

Friel was mayor then. He was elected in 1994, only 27 years old. He got unelected in 2003, but the people asked him back in 2010.

There was a casino referendum in Brantford 15 years ago. The Yes side won in a squeaker.

Brantford mayor Chris Friel unintentionally found himself a friend of the religious right. (Reg Beaudry/ urbanicity)

Friel had been steady in his opposition to the casino. "Brantford was going through deindustrialization. We’d lost Massey’s and Cockshutt (big farm equipment manufacturers) and were just reinventing ourselves."

And Friel didn’t think a casino was the right road back.

"The religious right adopted me," he says, but it wasn’t about that. He figured the casino would cause more troubles than it cured. Higher police costs, people losing their houses, the standard worries.

He wanted Laurier

Besides, he believed salvation could come from another quarter. He was after Laurier University to create a satellite campus in downtown Brantford. He even had the building to give them – a failed telecommunications site.

But after the referendum, council voted to sell that building to the province for a casino.

The casino opened and Brantford’s been getting a nice allowance every year since, five per cent of the slot revenues. The total payout to the city is now up to nearly $50 million.

The casino employs 900, both full and part-time. Wages and benefits to date – nearly $1/2 billion.

The new Harmony Square has a splash pad in summer, skating rink in winter. (Reg Beaudry/ urbanicity)

Brantford’s share of the slots goes to special projects. The first deposit from the casino was used in the mayor’s drive to get Laurier to town. Brantford owned the beautiful but neglected Carnegie library building downtown.

Renovate the Carnegie

The city used a few million casino-windfall dollars to renovate the Carnegie, then turned it over to Laurier. Brantford has since invested another $17 million – sometimes handing over buildings – to bolster the Laurier presence in the core.

Now Laurier has 19 buildings in downtown Brantford, representing an investment from the university of some $78 million.

In 2000, there were 39 students. Now it’s up to about 3,000. The end plan, some 15,000 students. And looking back, the mayor admits, "I have to say, no casino, no university."

He says the bad stuff hasn’t happened. He says they’ve looked hard, checked the stats with police and local social service agencies, and the casino has not set loose a plague on the streets of Brantford.

Downtown Brantford has places like Money Mart, but you've got to admire the architecture. (Reg Beaudry/ urbanicity)

As it turned out, most who go to the casino aren’t from Brantford anyway. Only 30 per cent are within a 20-minute drive. The rest arrive from further afield. Yes, Hamilton goes there. And yes, there are taxis from Toronto, even though guests may have to wait hours to get in on a game at the poker tables.

Money for Wayne Gretzky

Brantford has also spent its casino cheques on physician recruitment, a hospice, a tourism centre, Community Foundation grants, a brownfield reserve fund, and some $7 million for the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre.

The mayor believes the casino itself, on downtown’s southern edge, has done little for the core. Patrons roll in, roll out. But those thousands of students do bring the downtown sidewalks alive.

Casino Brantford provides some 900 jobs and has turned over nearly $50 million to the city. (Reg Beaudry/ urbanicity)

Yes, there’s Money Mart and thrift stores. But new student residences are popping up. The latest, which opens this week, is the $11-million Expositor Place. In this restored 1895 gem, there will be commercial space and a home for 210 students. The city kicked in $450,000 to restore the historic facade.

So what should Hamilton be doing?

Make Flamboro bigger

Friel thinks we’d be smart to nurture those slots at Flamboro Downs. "It’s successful now. Double the capacity and plough the money back into something else – like post-secondary." Would some cash finally bring a piece of Mohawk downtown?

In the past dozen years, Hamilton’s received about $50 million in slot sharing, pretty much the same as Brantford – except Hamilton is more than five times bigger.

How about a new gaming facility in our core? That would be expensive for private interests to build, Friel says, "and the bulk of the revenues are going back to the province."

So the mayor of Brantford does not see a casino in downtown Hamilton. Of course, he has been wrong before. 

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson.