Council approves community benefits agreement for gambling expansion at Woodbine racetrack

Toronto city council gave its final approval on Thursday to a community benefits agreement between the city and a consortium charged with expanding gambling operations at the Woodbine Racetrack.

Deal requires 40% of the jobs connected with the project to go to people from the area

City council approved plans to expand gambling operations at the Woodbine Racetrack on Thursday. (Michael Burns/The Canadian Press)

Toronto council gave its final approval on Thursday to a community benefits agreement between the city and a consortium charged with expanding gambling operations at the Woodbine Racetrack.

Council voted 26-15 to approve a deal that will see the Rexdale-based facility, which currently only has slot machines, grow into a full-fledged casino and entertainment complex. The agreement also requires that a large percentage of jobs associated with the project be reserved for people who live in the area, and other investments be made in the community.

"We are pleased that council chose to support jobs, development and the vitality that expanded gaming will bring to this portion of the city," said Jim Lawson, CEO of Woodbine Entertainment, in a news release.

Ontario Lottery and Gaming selected Ontario Gaming GTA LT — a partnership between B.C.-based Great Canadian Gaming Corporation and Toronto-based Brookfield Business Partners LP — as the casino operator for Woodbine's expanded gaming operations in August 2017.

Project 'a significant investment,' local councillor says

Coupled with separate development plans by Woodbine Entertainment Group to build a multi-use entertainment complex that will include shops, restaurants, a live music venue and other amenities, the expansion provides an opportunity to rejuvenate an area of the city that has struggled economically. A 2013 city staff report estimated Rexdale lost upwards of 20,000 jobs between 2001 and 2011.

"This is going to be a significant investment for the city's northwest, the people who live there and the city of Toronto," said Coun. Mike Ford, who represents Ward 2, Etobicoke North. Ford is the nephew of the late mayor Rob Ford and the current Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford, both of whom championed the project when they were on council.     

"The city of Toronto needs to be investing in the well-being of our communities and as an economic investment the casino is doing that," he said.

Concept art for the proposed Woodbine casino expansion, as seen from the racetrack. (Woodbine)

In a report sent to the city's executive committee on Apr. 12, interim city manager Giuliana Carbone estimated the facility is expected to provide roughly 3,700 new jobs once it is up and running in 2022 and that the city can expect to collect between $26 million and $31 million in revenue.

But Coun. Mike Layton, who represents Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina,  questions whether the positive benefits of the project outweigh the negative impact on problem gamblers and local businesses.

Layton has long been opposed to the Woodbine expansion, citing the negative impact of gambling addiction on people who live close to racetrack.

"The idea of a casino as a revenue tool for the provinces is flawed," said Layton, "We know that 25 per cent of revenue comes from problem gamblers local to the site and that's just wrong."

Layton also questions whether the new development will actually benefit the community.

"We focus on the economic benefit of jobs in the casino but we don't focus on what will happen to business in the community, he said. "That money will be spent at the casino and not in local businesses."

Community benefit agreement 'breaks new ground'

But several conditions set by the city in the community benefits agreement are aimed at ensuring the socio-economic benefits in the form of jobs and investment in the local community, and that the casino operator invest in reducing the negative impacts of problem gambling.

The agreement requires that 40 per cent of all new hires be residents of the local area, that 50 per cent of the new jobs created will be full time, and that 10 per cent of construction jobs employ apprentices and journeymen from the surrounding area.

Rosemarie Powell, executive director of advocacy group Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN), is pleased with Thursday's council decision.

"The community benefits agreement breaks new ground and shows that it is possible for big developments to support the local community with good jobs," said Powell.

Rosemarie Powell, executive director of advocacy group Toronto Community Benefits Network, is pleased with the results on Thursday's vote. (Lauren Pelley/CBC News)

Powell says her organization has been pushing to ensure benefits are provided to the residents of Rexdale ever since the original proposal for expansion was made 10 years ago. The TCBN was deeply involved in negotiations between city staff, the developer and community members and organizations over the past few months.

Two last-minute amendments to the agreement brought forward at her organization's behest include a $5 million investment for a child-care centre for Woodbine employees and community and labour involvement in the oversight and monitoring of the expansion project.

"This was only made possible by the hard work and advocacy of the community, labour unions and allied organizations," Powell said.

With files from Jasmin Seputis