Sudbury

North Bay city council to vote on whether or not to welcome casino

After years of debate, North Bay city council will vote Wednesday night on whether it should welcome a casino. The argument continues to be whether the economic benefits outweigh the social costs.

$31 million casino would come with 200 jobs, open as early as 2020

This vacant lot off Pinewood Park Drive in North Bay is the proposed home for a new $31 million casino. (Erik White/CBC )

Back in 2012, when North Bay city council voted to allow casino gambling, Mayor Al McDonald called it "just the next step."

Council placed a condition on its yes vote back then, reserving the right to reject the casino in the future if the plans showed it would not be beneficial to the city.

Now, six years later, city staff say that condition has been met and are advising council to approve tonight plans for a $31 million casino. That facility would include 300 slot machines, ten table games and three restaurants to be built on vacant land off Pinewood Park Drive in North Bay's south end.

City councillor Mark King though is hoping to delay the decision some more, especially as there are five freshly sworn-in councillors around the table.

"They're having a tough time following this and getting a handle on what it means for the city. I would think that rushing this through is not the way to go about it," he says.

North Bay city councillor Mark King. (Erik White/CBC )

King says many in North Bay are focusing on the 200 jobs that would come with the casino, but he points to a recent report showing there are already 400 unfilled positions in the city.

As chair of the Nipissing District Social Services Administration Board, he is also hoping to see more of the casino profits stay in the city.

King is proposing that the City of North Bay keep its 5.25 per cent, estimated to be about $1.2 million per year, but that an additional five per cent go to the services board to help cover the social costs of the casino.

The board's chief administrative officer Joe Bradbury wants to have that conversation as well.

Six years ago the service's board issued a report arguing that suicide, homelessness and a range of other social problems would become worse with a casino in North Bay, and urged the local and provincial governments to prepare for that.

"The issue is not around the actual casino itself. It's around harm reduction and figuring out strategies around harm reduction," Bradbury says.

Joe Bradbury is the chief administrative officer of the Nipissing District Social Services Administration Board. (Erik White/CBC)

Six years ago, the Nipissing District Social Services Administration Board warned that addiction supports needed to be in place before the casino opened.

"The challenge for us is if our costs go up, how do we cover them?" Bradbury says, adding that while North Bay will get a cut of the casino action, the surrounding towns that also pay into the services board — including Callander, West Nipissing and Mattawa — will not.

"It creates a little bit of tension." 

The issue is not around the actual casino itself. It's around harm reduction.- Joe Bradbury, Nipissing District Social Services Administration Board

Jonathon Collins has a front row seat for the social problems that might follow a casino to North Bay.

He has helped problem gamblers at the Community Counselling Centre of Nipissing for the last 16 years and says they typically have about ten clients a year.

Collins says he could see that increasing ten fold with a casino in town.

"I see people who are in severe distress, and absolutely we're going to have more of those people coming through our doors," he says.

Collins looks at his other clients struggling with other types of addiction and knows that studies show they are 23 times more likely to become gambling addicts than the average person. 

Jonathon Collins works with gambling addicts at the Community Counselling Centre of Nipissing. He expects the number of clients coming through his door could jump tenfold with a casino in North Bay. (Erik White/CBC)

He says gambling addiction is often hidden because society doesn't give "permission" for people to talk about gambling losses publicly, which means that when they come see a counsellor, it is a last resort.

"People that come through the doors here they are prioritized, because we know if you're coming through this door for a gambling issue you're in a bad way," Collins says.

"Financially things are probably very bad for you, a relationship is probably on the verge, so we put you right at the top of the waiting list to get you in."

If city council votes yes, North Bay is expected to become a casino town as early as 2020. 

No Ontario city has ever reversed its decision on welcoming casino gambling before. 

When asked what would happen if North Bay changed its mind, Ontario Lottery and Gaming spokesperson Tony Bitoni said he doesn't deal in "hypothetical situations" and "respects the municipal decision making process."

About the Author

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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