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A Downtown Casino Would be an Unmitigated Disaster
Jeff Halperin: "A casino in Toronto's core would be a once-in-a-generation catastrophe, literally to be avoided at all costs"

They may have been ruthless killers, but at least the gangsters in The Godfather had the decency to put their casino in a desert. A casino in Toronto’s core would be a once-in-a-generation catastrophe, literally to be avoided at all costs. There are three proposed downtown sites (and a fourth at Woodbine) with different bidders and schemes proposed, all of them abominations.

Some Torontonians are willing to permit casino development despite their reservations, but they don’t know the harm casinos cause, and why would they? It’s never been necessary to know before. Others, under the mistaken belief that they have accurately weighed the costs and benefits of a downtown casino, are decidedly in favour of it because they feel the money it will allegedly raise outweighs their principled concern. For brevity and clarity’s sake, I’ll call this group whores (in the Churchillian sense). When they look at things more carefully, they’ll change their mind (I flirted with whoring for an instant). The final group of casino proponents are the pimps who own the casino and want to make ceaseless profits at the city’s expense. This article is addressed to the first two groups, the latter obviously having their minds’ made up.

CASINOS KILL NEIGHBOURHOODS:

Casinos suck you in and use famously flagrant and cynical measures from letting you out, ensuring casino patrons never reach the outside environment let alone enhance it by their presence. There are no exit signs to help gamblers leave. Windowless rooms without clocks dupe gamblers into staying longer than intended, and make it easy to forget what time of day or night it is. Casinos constantly stimulate patrons with loud sounds and flashy lights, and their temperatures are kept cool to keep people alert and awake. Casinos provide spiritual and practical inspiration to Wal-Mart and Costco, teaching them to keep patrons inside by arranging their physical layout so as best to frustrate and confuse them. They do this very effectively; all the considerable traffic attracted to the area that casino proponents say is a boon actually has almost no positive effect on the community. The alleged tourists don’t benefit the neighbourhood because they never reach it–they are essentially ghosts.

But the goal to keep gamblers in isn’t just a cheap trick of physical arranging, but the scale of the entire development: the casino isn’t just a casino, it is a one-stop shop for everything purchasable. It’s unnecessary for people to spend money anywhere else. There’s no reason to leave. It has its own retail units, restaurants (with every kind of food imaginable served in impossibly cheap all-you-can-eat buffet), bars, grand entertainment acts (Cirque de Soleil, etc.), and hotels. Would anyone start a business next to this? Wouldn’t you be terrified if a casino popped up next to your business? Nothing can survive beside such a deep-pocketed black hole, but every type of vagrant will have a hangout or a clinic to call his own. Rather than watch the area slowly wither up and die, should a casino go up it would be best to just demolish the surrounding buildings and repurpose the land into the only thing that can thrive next to a casino–a graveyard. I believe downtown Toronto should cater to its living citizens.

TOURISM:

Casinos are good for tourism in very small markets where there is nothing else to attract them. There are no studies to show that more people would visit Toronto than do already, and even if there was an influx of tourists, a casino has a catastrophic impact on the tourist draws which already exist. Anne Golden, visiting scholar in Urban Studies at Ryerson, writes in the National Post, “Experience has shown elsewhere that casinos make business in the area go bankrupt.” This is for the reasons stated above. Besides, with so many gambling opportunities throughout Ontario and elsewhere (Golden: “Ontario operates 10 casinos, 17 slot facilities, and plans to build 29 more”), it’s not clear that people would trek to Toronto. 

JOBS:

The pro-casino lobby uses jobs as a refrain. That thousands of temporary construction jobs will result from building the casino is treated as an innate and unique attribute of the casino per se, as if it’s possible to construct anything without hiring people to construct it! Prisons don’t build themselves, nor do torture chambers or gulags. So why a casino? And why in a city building more condos than anywhere else on earth are more short-term contracting jobs needed? That Ford, the sworn enemy of unions, is heralding the union jobs this will create should make one wary.

That the casino won’t run itself once it’s completed makes it also like every other workplace on Earth. The jobs argument just begs the question. It’s hopelessly circular logic. Toronto should build something only if we desire the finished building, not just the construction process. What could be more short- sighted? If a massive development ends up being horrible, the amount of jobs it creates will only be in proportion to what a blight it is. Hell isn’t redeemed by keeping more devils on staff.

CRIME:

Casinos are a magnet for every grade of criminal, amateur through professional, for several reasons. People get into gambling debts and commit crimes to pay them off; alcoholism and suicide increases (the latter not just a religious sin, but a crime in many countries); it attracts broke, desperate people, and wealthy money launderers too. A Globe article from Saturday cited Karen Finlay, a professor at Ontario’s Guelph University and director of Problem Gambling Research Lab, who says Ontario has 300 000 people seriously addicted to gambling, “meaning they’ll lie to their family or steal to support their habit.” Lovely habits. That most gamblers are innocent is obvious, but doesn’t make creating a crime magnet in downtown less problematic. It’s depressing that casino proponents pooh-pooh this with a straight face by debating whether casinos attract a deluge of criminals or only a steady stream.

BUT THE FREE-MARKET WANTS IT!:

No, they don’t. The casino developers want it. They came to Toronto without being summoned and the people here are opposed to it, especially those who live nearby. Though the head of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation Paul Godfrey is quoted in the National Post (a paper whose parent company he is the President and CEO of) as saying Toronto stands to lose out on a, “once-in-a-generation opportunity” by not building a casino here, three former Toronto mayors–Crombie, Sewell, and Eggleton–wrote a joint letter to our mayor saying that actually they saw and rejected “countless” proposals for casinos promising essentially what we’re hearing now. Many prominent business magnates and other capitalistic figures oppose the casino downtown for different reasons–it takes something quite repulsive to unite the left and right like this.

Those who claim only a nanny state would reject a massive private-sector development with the scope to detrimentally affect the city as a whole can’t tell between a “nanny” and an “urban planning expert.” As if our freedom depends on being hopelessly subjected to all privately hatched schemes! Casino opponents aren’t posing laws against residential poker games, lottery tickets, sports and online gambling, and many other types. That’s as it should be. Should we purposefully leave ourselves vulnerable to self-serving private sector plans by saying “yes” to everything lest we appear to be a nanny state that intervenes only because experts tell us something is terrible, immoral and dangerous?

Elsewhere in the National Post, Jesse Kline articulates the casino’s free-market position: “In an economist’s perfect world the question of whether to build a casino in Toronto would be the same as whether to open a pizza parlour: are there enough people to make it a worthwhile investment?” In other words, morals or social consideration are banished and money governs exclusively. But I doubt Kline believes we inhabit the world he posits, and I don’t think he’d want to; all kinds of heinous, unconscionable things are quite profitable–the slave trade, the sex trade, and the war industry for starters. The free-market does not want a casino, and even if it did it would be a horrible justification. And if the principle alone isn’t enough to sway, the numbers simply don’t add up.

CASINOS ARE DAMAGING, YES, BUT WE NEED THE MONEY:

This is the whores’ central claim, fueled by the pimps’ delusion. Real life prostitutes are tragically promised money and glamour beyond what arrives, and here is no different. The naive whores in favour of the casino must change their mind now before they learn too late that they’re not high-class call girls or boys, but street prostitutes taken in alleys for $10 suck and fucks. I’m only crude to draw attention to the fact that it’s absurd that very decent people are so ready to accept something that will undoubtedly ruin thousands of people, and greatly damage segments of central Toronto itself. The only explanation is that they grossly underrate the damage a casino will inflict and overvalue the benefits. (I don’t mean to make light of the plight of prostitutes, but I highlight it because there’s a parallel; the city must not willingly get exploited in similar fashion.)

Anne Golden, the scholar cited above, claimed the city stands to make about $100 million annually. This is nothing in Toronto’s $14 billion dollar annual budget. For perspective, the vehicle registration tax that Ford gleefully cut, its revenue considered negligible and replaceable, brought in about $50 million, and without any of the associated problems of the casino. She adds that casinos transfer wealth and don’t create it, and only a third of total revenues go to the government. Then there are the costs of dealing with traffic, parking (a 10 000 car parking lot–larger than Yorkdale’s!), crime, gambling addiction, and more. The congestion a casino would cause alone has spurned a letter to the city in opposition signed by three real estate moguls. They are far from alone. The only people who support the casino are those who stand to profit and those they have conned. I don’t mean pitched successfully, I mean conned.

But not surprisingly, Kline lists a much higher figure–$195 million from hosting fees (though the Globe & Mail article referenced above, and printed after  Kline’s, claims, “bizarrely, the hosting fee still has not been released to the city of Toronto”), and as much as $400 million. I bet numbers elsewhere are even higher.  Kline at least has the good sense to say his are “probably inflated,” but why let arbitrary numbers stop from tantalizing? Kline’s fees take into account the money the city stands to make from selling or leasing the land, money that Toronto would stand to gain if anyone bought or leased it. He lists the predictable temptations: an annual kilometre of subway track and a station, repaired infrastructure, lowered taxes. Everyone should be put on high alert when those who ordinarily care nothing for the TTC suggest their huge privatized dreams will benefit the TTC. Indeed, that the casino resistance is strongest among people who desperately want mass transit and improved infrastructure is instructive.

None of the shiny renderings produced by developers actually show people gambling, because it ain’t a pretty picture

THE BOGUS PRO-CASINO PITCH:

To get ordinary people to approve of the appalling, enter the heavily funded PR blitz: there are pro-casino ads in movie theatres, advertorials in the Star, on the Globe and Mail’s website. Enzo DiMatteo from Now provides a disturbing glimpse of the behind-the-scenes power determined to get a casino in place. It’s as if the article in the newspaper itself has a layer of film on it, the story is so greasy. DiMatteo’s work is a mandatory look at the rotten core of the Toronto casino movement.

Like in all advertising, casino proponents anticipate what we want and project it outward. You’ll notice the expensive renderings casino lobbyists have released all look more like an urban Eden than like any casino in the world. They know that to make gambling attractive, they must not show people gambling. I’m amazed at the gall of surveys and polls that ask how much citizens care about the casino’s outward appearance, as if Toronto should willingly take on a cancer because the tumour is stylish.

In Pericles’ famous funeral oration, he distinguishes Athens’ superiority over Sparta by noting, “By what kind of practices we attained to our position, and under what kind of institutions and manner of life our empire became great.” If you imagine the city making glamorous money from the foes Bond vanquishes in baccarat, to get the full picture you must also envision busloads of demented senior citizens sitting at the slot machines in diapers so they can shit without losing their preferred slot. What kind of a city sustains itself by making money from criminals, Vegas sleaze, and the elderly incontinent?

Every pitch is aimed at convincing Torontonians that Vegas sharks are at heart civic benefactors looking for a new place to bestow a mitzvah. They’d like us to forget that the house always wins. To these parasites we are the host, not the house. They make money. The insubstantial tokenistic sums they offer is a distraction akin to comping high rollers a free night stay at their hotel. Casino tycoons are not exactly arms dealers, but they are wolves, not sheep. Whatever their pitch, ignore them totally. To borrow an effective warning from a very different context: Keep away, keep away. Avoid, refrain, don’t. I should like here a full list of all possible interdictions, vetoes and threats.

But don’t just take my word for it. Read as widely as possible about it. Perhaps I’m mistaken and I’ve overlooked evidence that shows a casino will be a wonderful boon for generations to come, increasing our cultural vibrancy and a harmless, cost-effective means of whisking locals and tourists along timely trains down kilometres of golden subway tracks.

If you can believe that, you’re free to vote “yes” to the downtown casino.

____

Jeff Halperin is a Toronto-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter @JDhalperin.

For more, follow us on Twitter @TorontoStandard and subscribe to our newsletter.

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