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Casino activists up ante on gaming vote

 By Kevin Werner, News Staff

Days after the city held two public meetings on a possible downtown casino inHamilton that attracted more than 600 people, most politicians are keeping their views on hold before giving their answer to the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG).

“It’s going to be a tough decision,” said Mountain councillor Scott Duvall.

About 500 people jammed the city hall council chambers and spilled out into the second-floor foyer as City Manager Chris Murray moderated a boisterous two-and-a-half-hour forum on a possible downtown casino.

The second of two public sessions, the  Jan. 17 meeting allowed both the pro-casino and anti-casino crowds the opportunity to voice their opinions about the benefits or detriments of constructing a gaming facility in the city core. Shouts of support and attacks between the two sides were kept to a minimum, and were only heard at the start of the meeting. By the one-hour mark, people started to drift out of the council chambers.

Rick Gray, vice-president of the OLG, said if council says no to a downtown casino and opts to back Flamboro Downs as the only possible gaming facility location within the city, the OLG will “have to take a look at that zoning.”

OLG remains a tenant at Flamboro Downs, which is owned by the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation. OLG is continuing to negotiate with the company to remain at Flamboro Downs in the short term.

Councillors who showed up at the city hall meeting included Lloyd Ferguson, Jason Farr, Terry Whitehead, Duvall, Chad Collins, Robert Pasuta, Judi Partridge, Sam Merulla, Maria Pearson, Bernie Morelli and Brad Clark. Mayor Bob Bratina and his wife, Carol, arrived at 8:15. Councillor Tom Jackson was attending another meeting and couldn’t be at the city hall event.

Gray was one of seven panelists to take part in the forum. Another meeting was held Jan. 16 at Waterdown High School, attracting about 100 people who were predominately in support of retaining the horse racing industry.

City council still back Flamborough as their preferred location for a gaming facility, at the insistence of local councillors Judi Partridge, Robert Pasuta, and Merulla.

But politicians are scheduled to hear a proposal  from P.J. Mercanti of The Carmen’s Group on Feb. 6, for an “entertainment district” that could include a gaming facility within a hotel complex in downtownHamilton. Media reports have linked Carmen’s to Hard Rock Café as possible investors in the multi-million dollar project.

During the public forum, proponents of a downtown casino trumpeted the jobs and economic development that would flow with having a casino and hotel complex in the downtown.

Flamboro Downs has about 800 slots, which translates to about $4.4 million a year in revenue for the city. Under a new agreement, the city this year will receive about $4.7 million in slots revenue.

If a larger casino is located in the downtown area, there will be about 12,000 slot machines, as well as a number of table games. The city’s cut of the revenue would jump to over $5 million. But Hamilton would not get a portion of the table games revenue.

Opponents of a gaming facility,  including Dan Jelly and Matthew Green, who helped to organize the anti-casino rally outside city hall prior to the meeting, argued that a casino will disrupt the slow, but steady redevelopment of the downtown.

They said a gaming facility will prey on the poor, fuel more gambling addictions, create more crime and suck all the existing dollars away from local businesses.

Professor Hannah Holmes of McMaster University agreed that a casino can’t fill the gap of lost jobs from the city’s industry sector.

Hamilton Deputy Chief of Police Ken Leendertse said, “We don’t expect to see that much activity in the area.” He said over the last six years there have been 750 occurrences around Flamboro Downs. If there is a downtown casino, the types of crimes that will happen include public intoxication, auto thefts and disturbances. He said there is no data available to gauge whether casinos contribute to a higher suicide rate or crime rates.

The city hall forum, which included a virtual town hall set up, had up to 24,000 unique people listening to the proceedings, the largest ever attendance for a city meeting, said Norm Schleehahan, manager of business development.

The city is also expected to conduct a poll on a casino at the end of February, as part of its citizen engagement process.

The OLG has given the city until March 1 to decide whether or not Hamilton can be a willing host for a downtown casino.

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