Sudbury

North Bay casino set to open its doors

A decade after the province set out to expand casino gambling, a new casino opens Wednesday in northern Ontario. The $41 million Cascades Casino brings some 200 new jobs to North Bay, but it also comes with a social cost. 

Addiction counsellors expecting problem gambling to double or triple within first month

After years of political debate and construction delays, North Bay will officially become a casino town on Wednesday.

The new $41 million Cascades Casino will open its doors at 5 p.m. some three years after ground was first broken in the city's south end and a decade after the province first announced plans to expand casino gaming across Ontario.

Rob Mitchell, the director of communications and public affairs for Gateway Casinos, says it's been a "marathon" with "very confusing" COVID rules to follow and labour shortages during the pandemic, although the company was "really fortunate" to purchase construction materials before the price jumps caused by COVID.

During a tour of the new casino, he points out the new roulette and blackjack tables, as well as the 300 slot machines, but spends just as much time on the "state-of-the-art" kitchen, the menu full of locally sourced food and drink, the stage where local entertainment will play every weekend and the large patio that's proved very popular at their other sites. 

"You don't necessarily have to gamble to have a good time," said Mitchell. 

"That's critical to our business model and that's what distinguishes us from our competition, the fact that we're able to offer something for just about everyone."

The casino industry has been hit especially hard by the pandemic, being closed for long stretches of the past two years and then operating under strict capacity limits, but Mitchell says it is bouncing back quickly. 

"Nobody I think has any hard data on visitation because we're just climbing out of that hole," he said. 

"There is a lot of pent-up demand ... business has been very strong. People are very happy to get back."

Despite an active anti-casino lobbying leading up to the vote by North Bay city council in 2018, Gateway Casinos says they've seen little local opposition since then. (Erik White/CBC )

Now that North Bay is up and running, Mitchell says Gateway Casinos will be able to put more energy into its other sites, including Sault Ste. Marie— which still has the "temporary" casino opened by the Ontario government in 1999— and Sudbury, where plans to build a casino as part of the Kingsway Entertainment District have been held up by several legal challenges.

Mitchell says Sudbury is the one city where a new casino has been "met with sustained resistance" and he hopes Sudburians make the trip to North Bay for a "$41 million preview" of what could be coming to their city.

There was also opposition in North Bay, with a lobby group pushing city council to vote against allowing casino gaming in December 2018.

Donna Sinclair was one of 17 people from No Casino North Bay who spoke at that council meeting.

"I didn't hear anybody make passionate speeches for the casino," said the 78-year-old.

"I don't know how it would split in terms of people who want the casino and those who don't, but I think there's an awful lot of people who I think hope this works out OK, but we're worried."

Sinclair says she doesn't have any plans to visit Cascades Casino, but has thought at lot over the years how the "people who want the casino are not my enemies."

"I don't think any of us can sustain anger for four years when the deed is done," she said.

Gateway Casinos says now that North Bay is set to open, it can focus on its other sites, including plans for a new casino in Sudbury and the existing 23-year-old facility in Sault Ste. Marie. (Erik White/CBC )

Long-time North Bay Mayor Al McDonald said in 2012 that a new casino was at the bottom of his to-do list, but says that changed when the 2016 census showed the city was shrinking and he ran in 2018 on a promise of economic growth.

"It wasn't that I was pro or anti-casino, it just wasn't on my priority list," said McDonald. 

"Different forms of development and entertainment definitely fit into the mix. It's just another option for the City of North Bay to continue to grow its inventory and create jobs."

The 200 new jobs, plus an annual cut of gambling profits for the city, do come with a social cost.

Jonathon Collins, a psychotherapist with the Community Counselling Centre of Nipissing, says it's important to know that only about 3 per cent of the population is prone to problem gambling.

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

But he says gaming addicts often only seek help when they are "hopeless" and about half of the patients he sees are "actively suicidal."

Collins says the counselling centre is trying to get more staff trained to deal with gambling addiction now that the casino is about to open.

"Absolutely. We're planning on our numbers doubling, if not tripling here," he said. 

"I think it's going to hit us almost immediately in the first month."

Collins said he is also working with some of his clients on a "safety plan" to keep them from relapsing now that there is a convenient place to gamble in North Bay.

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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