Centre Wellington council votes 4-3 in favour of potential Grand River Raceway expansion

Is the potential expansion of the Grand River Raceway a moral or planning issue?

On Feb. 21 a proposed zoning/official plan amendment to expand the raceway once again came before Centre Wellington councillors.

Council reviewed the report by managing director of planning and development Brett Salmon and proponents Pierre Chauvin of MHBC Planning and Dr. Ted Clarke of the Grand River Agricultural Society.

Council was presented with  the choice to support or reject the zoning and official plan amendments, which would pave the way for the expansion.

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) is seeking a private gaming operator in the “West GTA,” which includes the slots facility at Grand River Raceway as well as slots at Flamboro Downs in Hamilton and at Mohawk Raceway in Campbellville, and the OLG’s Casino Brantford.

The OLG has plans for dozens of gaming tables at slot sites with expansions or changes decided by the operator, which will likely be chosen this fall.

There are 252 slot machines in operation at the raceway in Elora and while current zoning permits up to 450 slot machines, it  does not allow table games.

The Grand River Agricultural Society applied to remove current limitations to make the Grand River Raceway a viable site for continued gaming operation in accordance with OLG requirements.

The society is concerned an absence of additional gaming opportunities may cause an operator to move the gaming site, which would impact not only the viability of the Grand River Raceway as a horse racing facility, but also the township’s ability to collect gaming revenue, as well as other community benefits of the facility.

Salmon said “if this was any other planning application, I would simply have a recommendation as a planner.” However the gaming issue is a bit different in that council’s decision will have an impact on whether or not there would be enhanced gaming here, Salmon said.

He noted that back in 2000, council of the day approved the Grand River Raceway and slot machines.

Salmon reiterated comments made in 2000: “it is not a planner’s role to recommend whether you want gaming or not. But if gaming was supported by council, it is a good site.”

Following a lengthy OMB hearing in 2000, the board concluded the facility was well planned, properly considered, appropriate from the standpoint of servicing and planning policy, and fit in with surrounding land uses.

The board also felt the character of the town would not drastically change and that there were economic, recreational and tourism benefits.

Salmon concluded “today, we are at the same place” from a land-use planning standpoint.

He noted the Grand River Agricultural Society referred to the roughly $2-million received by the township each year from the OLG slot facility, in addition to the contributions through wages and benefits of $7.1-million annually.

Salmon said numerous community groups have received funding from the agricultural society.

He noted the limit set by the province could be 1,200 slot machines, but there is no way to know what the result would be in Elora or the impact it would have.

“We don’t know what size of building is required to house the gaming facility, but in general, there is lots of room on the site,” said Salmon.

Clarke said while he believes 650 slot machines might be appropriate, he can not speak on behalf of a gaming operator.

Councillor Steven Kitras said his understanding is that gaming facilities would only be located where there is consumer interest, which could potentially separate them from horse racing facilities.

Chauvin said having the two facilities on the same site is key to the agricultural society.

Clarke said horse racing is now integrated into the OLG portfolio – “whether that is good or bad for horse racing has yet to be determined.”

Clarke noted the Grand River Raceway ranks third in the province for money spent on machines per day.

Kitras said if the intent is to locate gambling where there is interest – “we don’t know who they are … they could all be from Kitchener-Waterloo.”

Clarke said the most important step is having a community willing to host the facility. He added the only reason the agricultural society does not yet have a business plan is it has yet to meet the new operator.

Kitras asked if horse racing makes a profit.

“Today, no. Tomorrow, quite possibly,” responded Clarke. The whole system of how it will be operated is being negotiated at this point, he said.

Councillor Steven VanLeeuwen, who noted the agricultural society is the property owner and OLG is the tenant, said it appears the gambling industry is subsidizing the horse racing industry. He asked if the agricultural society had put together any other plans beyond this proposal, to make the industrially-zone property financially viable.

Clarke said there have been discussions, simply because there is no guarantee there will be a new operator.

Councillor Mary Lloyd said this is a serious decision that will impact Centre Wellington residents and taxes.

Lloyd said there were five council members who were at the table in 2012, when the majority of council supported OLG and its activities in Centre Wellington.

She said she has talked to residents concerned about the potential loss of the raceway and loss of funding used for capital projects.

Lloyd said the community has received just over $22-million from the OLG and she noted jobs could be lost and the township might have to raise taxes 20% to cover capital repairs if the facility leaves town.

“This is a lawful activity,” Lloydsaid, adding part the revenue generated by OLG is directed to various gambling addiction programs.

“Individuals are not forced to walk in to those facilities, just as they are not forced to sit in front of a terminal at home (to gamble).”

Lloyd said she has talked to residents who have local bridges closed in their areas.

“Financially the community has benefitted in so many ways, it is almost something that can’t be measured,” she said.

VanLeeuwen stated “it is fairly well known that I am not in favour of the gambling industry. I find it especially concerning hearing a request to allow even more gambling within our township.”

He added he considers gambling separate from the horse racing industry.

The application before council illustrates the progressive nature of the gambling industry, he said – “There is a constant desire to see restrictions removed.”

He said the current proposal could potentially see 1,200 slot machines and 52 gaming tables – with a desired outcome of generating $216-million.

“The Grand River Agricultural Society sits on 57 acres of industrial employment land with little to no pursuit of alternate resources,” VanLeeuwen said.

Meanwhile, he said the township is looking for industrial lands to develop.

VanLeeuwen said the raceway lands are valued at $6.9-million by MPAC but classified as tax exempt.

“The slots in Elora have taken more than $40 million out of the local economy and returned $2 million to the township,” he said.

VanLeeuwen admitted he has “a hard time denying we should keep [slots revenue] in our budget and I have a hard time imagining budgeting without it.

“But … The only way for the slots to make money is for people in our community to lose it.”

He believed Centre Wellington “should stand against the slots as an acceptable form of revenue – even if the province of Ontario is promoting it.”

Councillor Fred Morris said he has also seen the destructive nature of gambling but, “The reality is that tonight we do not have the jurisdiction to determine the legitimacy or morality of that business. The province has already done that.”

Morris said the application needs to be looked at in terms of its impact to the community.

“The reality is that if this facility was not there, 30 minutes away is the Mohawk Raceway with its slots facility” and within an hour’s drive are Flamboro Raceway or the Brantford Casino.

Morris said, “I have to look at my community and lead it in the direction best for it … not what I think, believe or even want.”

He contended council will face a lot of questions from the community if its actions cause the raceway to be lost.

“I think $2-million is a lot of money, and I think the township needs that money,” Morris said, adding that even with the OLG money, the township still needs more to keep up its infrastructure.

“We have to be practical and pragmatic. We may not like the industry, but it is here and is accepted.”

Councillor Don Fisher agreed with what was said “word-for-word.” He reminded councillors that this is a planning decision and that there are no planning objections to this application.

Fisher said there is no documented evidence that would stand up in court that the OLG facility is causing a detrimental social impact. He agreed the financial impact to the municipality should not be the primary reason behind council’s decision.

Fisher said that even with the amendment, there are no guarantees the raceway will remain – “All this does is set (the race) up for a better chance to remain in some shape or form.”

He said “if we turn them down, we need a valid defensible reason to do so based on planning principals and evidence.” Fisher did not see any evidence that would allow council to turn it down.

Kitras said “the gist of this problem is that the province is broke – so now they’ve changed the law to allow for more gambling and more varieties.”

Kitras relayed personal experiences of friends and family affected by gambling.

“But the difference between [the OLG] and my business is that I just make something, and [the OLG] has a social impact,” Kitras said.

“I can’t approve this because of personal reasons. I see this as not really being economic development.

“We cannot absorb this cost because when someone kills themselves because they have lost all their money, you can’t absorb that.

“This is the crack cocaine of revenue generation.”

Kitras said, “We are responsible for the whole community and I cannot vote for this.”

Mayor Kelly Linton said, “Gambling in Canada has grown at an unprecedented rate. I’ve never been in favour of any level of government being involved in the gambling industry. I don’t think it is true economic development.”

Linton said as the province is looking for new sources of revenue, “This isn’t doing the trick.”

He stressed OLG and the agricultural society have been great partners, but council’s decision is whether or not to allow the expansion of gambling in Centre Wellington.

“I feel it is the wrong thing for government … when you need people to lose,” he said.

Supporting the expansion were councillors Kirk McElwain, Lloyd, Fisher and Morris.

Opposed were Kitras, VanLeeuwen and Linton.