Ottawa

Hard Rock Casino gambles on 'sneaky' move to add gaming tables

The casino has applied to expand the allowed number of gaming tables from 21 to 35, completely bypassing council approval — and some councillors are livid.

'Backdoor' approach designed to get around council's decision to limit tables at racetrack, councillor says

Hard Rock Casino said earlier this year that it could potentially invest $320 million into an expanded Rideau Carleton Raceway. In the meantime, it's quietly applied to add 14 gaming tables without council approval. (Supplied)

About a month after Hard Rock Casino took over the day-to-day operations of Rideau Carleton Raceway, the casino in south Ottawa has quietly applied to expand the allowed number of gaming tables from 21 to 35, completely bypassing council approval.

The promise of a maximum 21 gaming tables for the casino has been re-iterated at council numerous times, most recently in September when council rubber-stamped Hard Rock partnering with Rideau Carleton Raceway.

At the time, council re-affirmed its 2013 commitment that any expansion to gambling would only go ahead after the casino went "before the public, committee and council as part of the planning process."

I just find it unconscionable- Coun . Diane Deans

Instead, Rideau Carleton Raceway applied to the committee of adjustment, a quasi-judicial body that deals with minor changes to zoning rules. It's also a body that is not usually subject to public scrutiny.

Because it's a zoning by-law that stipulates that the casino can only have up to 21 gaming tables, Rideau Carleton is taking its case to the committee, arguing that a 67 per cent increase in gaming tables is a "minor variance."

Coun. Diane Deans says it's 'unconscionable' that the casino would take a 'sneaky approach' to expand gambling in Ottawa. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

Backdoor, sneaky approach: Deans

"This is a heaping helping of bad faith is what I think this is," said Coun. Diane Deans, who has been a vocal opponent of expanding gambling in the capital.

It was Deans who moved the motion in 2013 that called for any expansion of gaming to be preceded by studies and public consultation on the effects of transportation and traffic. 

"Now what we're seeing is this back-door, sneaky approach to expanding gaming without public scrutiny or even council scrutiny," Deans said.

She added she was told by city staff that planning staff knew of the raceway's plans to add additional gaming tables, and views the expansion as "minor in nature."

"But it is not at all what council passed, it's not what we anticipate, it's not what we directed," Deans said.

"I just find it unconscionable."

Coun. Keith Egli says the casino's actions do not bode well for the company's partnership with the city. (CBC)

Doesn't bode well for openness: Egli

Coun. Keith Egli said he left the September council meeting with a "sense of optimism" council's relationship with the new casino operators would be open and transparent, with Hard Rock officials agreeing to discuss and address the negative effects of gambling with Ottawa Public Health.

"Everyone was under the understanding that those discussions would take place before any expansion of gambling," Egli said. "This does not bode well … I'm disappointed at how this is playing out."

So far, there have been no such discussions, confirmed a public health official. In 2013, public health estimated that at any one time, there are 13,000 people in Ottawa with gambling problems, 2,000 of them with issues considered serious.

Extra tables not approved by OLG

Councillors aren't the only ones who were surprised to hear about the casino's application for expansion. 

Ontario Lottery and Gaming, which regulates gambling in Ontario, confirmed in an emailed statement the city "passed a positive resolution to allow up to 21 live table games at the current site."

But "before Hard Rock Casino Ottawa can add table games to the site, it must present a business case to OLG and receive required municipal and provincial approvals."

Those requirements do not appear to have been met.

Committee of adjustment can refuse to hear application

The application is going to the committee of adjustment on the morning of Nov. 15 at Ben Franklin Place. The public is allowed to participate.

However, the committee can decide not to hear the application.

The committee of adjustment can only hear applications that meets four tests, including whether the request meets the general purpose of the bylaw and whether it's truly "minor in nature."

It will be up to the committee members to determine whether the applications meets those tests, according to city clerk and solicitor Rick O'Connor.

No one from Rideau Carleton Raceway could be reached for comment on Wednesday.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.

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