Will Rail Deck Park lead to a casino bid?

I set off a firestorm Thursday morning (Aug. 4) when I appeared on the 7:45 am Round One panel discussion on NEWSTALK 1010.  We were talking about the Mayor’s big announcement the day prior;  he wants to build a magnificent park overtop the existing downtown railway lands. “Rail Deck Park” is to be a 21 acre oasis of grass and trees in the heart of downtown Toronto’s booming sky-rise condo jungle.  It’s a beautiful concept and one I wholeheartedly support.

This is exactly the kind of big-picture thinking Toronto needs.  The mayor, rightly, poo-pooed criticism that there was, as yet, no plans to pay for the park.  It's important to have the vision first – then, if it's the right vision and people subscribe to it, government's job is to find a way to pay for it.  The only people asking for a "fully funded financial plan" are the people who don't want it to happen.  This is as true with Rail Deck Park as it is with Toronto's forever war over subways and other forms of lesser transit.

How did I light the firestorm?  Well, I pointed out this proposal for a Rail Deck Park wasn't new.  In fact, it had been part of a 2012 casino proposal from Oxford Properties Group.  I went on to predict Rail Deck Park would be a "foot-in-the-door" for a forthcoming casino proposal at some point in the months or years ahead.  The plan being to hook Toronto on the deliciousness of the park, then when the city was struggling with the reality of how to pay for such a delight, the Ontario Lottery & Gaming Corporation (OLG) would emerge from the shadows, in shining bright armour upon a brilliant white steed, and offer to pay for everything, at no cost to taxpayers, for the mere consideration of siting a casino in Toronto's downtown.

It was a strategy I had once proposed myself, during the Toronto City Council casino battles of 2012-13, which I've written about in my book.  I argued then that the OLG's "out of nowhere" announcement it wanted the city to agree to host a downtown casino would fail, and suggested the only way to succeed would be to find a benefit that was so attractive the city fell in love with it and, when it became clear it was unaffordable, introduce a casino proposal as a way of painlessly paying for the "must-have" improvement.  No one listened to me then.  But, it appeared that the mayor's staff and maybe others, were trying the same plan now.

Folks on the roundtable, including City Councillor Shelley Carroll (see above) didn't take me that seriously, but the mayor himself was galvanized into action, to disconnect his heavenly park from any taint by association with a casino.  Within minutes of my prognostication, John Tory emailed into the morning show to denounce my prediction:

"NO CASINO downtown. Nothing whatsoever to do with that. Not happening. Already decided. Casino to woodbine (sic)." – Mayor John Tory

Later in the day, Tory joined Ryan Doyle on NEWSTALK1010's Live Drive program and reiterated it was "just a park" and suggested that I was just "hallucinating."

We'll see...

Methinks they doth protest too much

Thursday morning, Toronto Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat jumped aboard the sayin' it ain't so bandwagon, posting to Twitter:

It's somewhat amusing that a senior city staffer might actually harbour fantasies that Toronto City Council decisions were in any way meaningful or final.  Keesmaat later admitted the current Rail Deck Park proposal was based on the 2012 casino proposal from Oxford:

By Friday, even the Toronto Star was nosing around the casino-linkage in its story.

Which, enjoyably, led City Councillor Shelley Carroll to tweet:

You decide if Rail Deck Park will spark a new downtown casino bid

Here's a couple of stories about the 2012 Oxford Properties proposal:

CpBFX91UIAAm9mb.jpg-largeCaesars unveils vision for a downtown Toronto casino

Oxford unveils $3-billion casino, convention centre proposal for downtown Toronto

$3-billion casino plan unveiled for downtown Toronto

Purely coincidental, is the fact that Oxford president and CEO Blake Hutcheson was also a member of Mayor John Tory's transition advisory council.  Likewise a coincidence is the fact that Tory's top two staffers, Chief of Staff Chris Eby and Principal Secretary Vic Gupta were lobbyists who worked for Sussex Strategy Group a key player on the casino file in 2012/13.  This is not at all to suggest there is anything awry here.  All three of these men are consummate, upstanding professionals with no inappropriate connections or motivations that I'm aware of.  They are good at their jobs and, because of their past experience, they do understand what value a casino can bring to the city and the type of money it could invest in public infrastructure under the right conditions.

On the Live Drive with Ryan Doyle, Mayor Tory said he'd gotten the idea for Rail Deck Park from a senior city manager for whom it was a "pet project."  It's interesting to note that there were a few mid-level city managers who were so enthralled with the original Caesars casino proposal that some of the language used in an early version of the city staff report on the casino decision was identical to the "sales pitch" language used by lobbyists and executives for the casino in one of their 2012 presentation decks received in the mayor's office (where I was still working).  I protested its inclusion in what was supposed to be an objective, professional report to Council, saying it suggested staff bias and was sure to draw criticism.  It was subsequently taken out.

Can Council change it's mind?

But Council already decided against a casino in downtown Toronto. Very true, and by a seemingly commanding 40-4 vote as Keesmaat pointed out.  However, anyone who's watched the transit debates, or remembers Council banning, then un-banning plastic bags, or passing, then un-passing a consolidated set of by-laws, will know – Council undoes its own decisions almost as often as it makes decisions. And the 40-4 vote is misleading, because it was after then Mayor Rob Ford grew frustrated with the machinations of Premier Kathleen Wynne and initially cancelled the vote on casinos altogether.  There remain about 50 per cent of councillors on Toronto city council who would vote for a casino under the right conditions.

Woodbine is going to be a bust

But it's going ahead at Woodbine, no?  Actually, probably, no.  The OLG has so badly bungled the file on Woodbine that there remains little or no progress on finding a casino operator there to invest.  The city's hope for a multi-billion dollar investment will certainly not come to pass, because OLG's contract terms for casino operators are so poorly constructed that there is no way any successful bidder will earn enough money to finance an up-front investment of more than a few hundred million.  As a result, the Woodbine casino – if it is ever built at all – will be a bare-bones four-walls-and-a-roof box with slots and table games inside, surrounded by a sea of parking.

It will not attract customers from beyond a drivable radius, making it simply another regional gaming venue that will cannibalize revenues from Rama and Niagara Falls.  It will, therefore, not throw off much incremental revenue to the province at all, and the city is unlikely to net much more income from it than it already receives from the slots operation at Woodbine – which is already the most profitable slots operation in North America.