Gaming companies still betting on Sault Ste. Marie despite OLG uncertainty

Much was said during the recent Sault Ste. Marie provincial byelection campaign about how the government is slowly moving OLG jobs to Toronto. Still, the gaming industry that has grown up around the Sault office, is betting on big things to come.

About 1,000 people in Sault Ste. Marie work in gambling and gaming businesses

The millions of lottery tickets packaged every month at Pollard Banknote in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., aren't all winners.

But some in the Sault say the city really hit the jackpot when the Ontario Lottery and Gaming head offices were moved there decades ago.

It has attracted a range of gaming companies who want to be close to the government agency, including Pollard, which opened 10 years ago.

Pollard currently has 65 employees, but thanks to a new contract, is about to hire 35 new workers.

"We're happy to expand our operations in the Sault, and I know that's important to the Ontario government and the Ontario lottery," says co-CEO Doug Pollard.

65 workers at Pollard Banknote in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., package millions of lottery tickets every year. (Erik White/CBC)

There has been fear for years that OLG jobs are slowly slipping out of the Sault and moving to Toronto, with the agency's 1,000 person workforce now split fairly evenly between the two centres.

It became a hot button issue in the recent provincial byelection, with all parties pushing the importance of OLG to diversifying the economy, but only the Liberals, who finished a distant third, promised to not just maintain jobs, but move more north from Toronto.

All this talk doesn't dim Pollard's optimism.

"You know, OLG goes about their business. They need to have great people, sometimes they find them in Toronto, sometimes they find them in the Sault. You know, we'll adapt," he says.

The office tower housing some 500 Ontario Lottery and Gaming employees in Sault Ste. Marie, looms over the downtown, including the former Northern Breweries site. (Erik White/CBC)

High tech jobs for 20-somethings

In a nondescript office building in downtown Sault Ste. Marie, about 50 people work at Canadian Bank Note designing software for video lottery terminals, bingo halls and even 50-50 draws.

The cubicles are filled with a diverse group of 20- or 30-somethings doing high tech work — exactly the kind of workers the Sault is trying to attract.

Canadian Bank Note gaming division executive director Kirk Arends says no matter what happens at OLG, it's up to private firms to grow the industry.

"It's up to us to provide value to the OLG's of the world and not just by being a technology provider, but by being a full service provider," Arends says.

UMG Media has set up an office in Sault Ste. Marie to hold video game tournaments across Ontario. (UMG Media)

The latest new addition to the gaming cluster in the Sault is in a different kind of gaming business.

UMG Media organizes e-sports tournaments for competitive video gamers, including a recent event in the Sault and an upcoming one in Sudbury, as well as running an online game platform.

Chairman Dave Antony says they currently have two employees in the Sault. He says he thinks that number could grow rapidly as the company aims to launch its Ontario operations out of that office.

"It could get very large," he says, adding that low office rent in the Sault was a major factor in setting up there.

Leo Tiberi is the executive lead for the UP project at the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre. (Erik White/CBC)

This industry has been cultivated by the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre, which actively tries to recruit companies in the OLG supply chain to move to the city.

Leo Tiberi, the executive lead for the centre's UP project, says while OLG's "modernization" means that some positions are being moved around, it actually opens up opportunities for private firms to land new contracts. That could mean new jobs for the Sault.

"Ontario Lottery has remained committed from the top down. We're not worried about Ontario Lottery, we're actually very encouraged by what they're doing right now," Tiberi says.

Tiberi says he foresees the day that the steel town of Sault Ste. Marie is known as "Gametown."

"I hope they do. I hope they say both," he says. 

"One thing I've learned about this city: they work hard, they play hard."


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