05/21/2013 3:26PM

Woodbine's bid to expand casino gambling rejected by Toronto council

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario – The Woodbine Entertainment Group’s plans for expanded casino gambling suffered what would appear to be a fatal blow on Tuesday when Toronto City Council voted 24-20 against Mayor Rob Ford’s proposal to put more slot machines and table games at the racetrack.

“It’s very disappointing news, especially coming out of a positive recommendation in the City of Toronto’s staff report and then an overwhelmingly supportive vote in favor by the executive committee in the middle of April,” said Nick Eaves, president and chief executive officer of WEG.

“With those two things in place, for full council to reject the expansion opportunity was a shocking outcome.

“The councilors know what’s at stake. They knew full well that really the issue at Woodbine was making certain that there was a sustainable business plan, that the 7,500 jobs that Woodbine generates can be protected, with the opportunity of new jobs being created. We’re the largest employer in the northwest corner of the city.”

A proposal for a downtown Toronto casino was also defeated at the meeting Tuesday at Toronto City Hall, leaving the door open for the province’s Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation to locate a full casino in nearby Vaughan, where it would be in close and direct opposition to Woodbine. The provincial government has established 29 gaming zones for casino expansion but has said it would respect the wishes of any city voting against a casino. Vaughan has expressed an interest.

A full casino would have created additional revenue for Woodbine, which formerly received 10 percent of the net slots revenue with another 10 percent going to horsemen for purses. That program ended on March 31, and racetracks currently lease their slots areas to the OLG. Woodbine gets an annual subsidy in a two-year deal with the provinical government to cover its operating costs.

Eaves said, however, that the battle is far from over.

“The province has committed to taking certain measures to ensure a sustainable horse racing industry,” said Eaves. “We’re all pleased that the new premier (Kathleen Wynn) has given that undertaking. She made that announcement in early March; it was reiterated in the budget that came out two weeks ago.

“She shed a bit more light on it last Monday, when she talked about the panel of three former cabinet ministers being reassembled to build that plan.”

Ontario’s Liberal Government, then headed by Dalton McGuinty, had appointed a transition panel last fall with the object of developing a plan to keep horse racing afloat in the wake of the lost slots revenue.

Transitional funding was released to most of the province’s racetracks earlier this spring but the amounts remain confidential.

“We’ve got to make sure that we’re working through that process and towards an outcome that ensures there is a sustainable industry which has a revenue base from gaming at our sites and can be invested back,” Eaves said.