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Mayor furious to hear Grand River Raceway could possibly lose slots

Bone of contention - OLG officials told Centre Wellington Mayor Joanne Ross-Zuj and Grand River Raceway general manager Ted Clarke they are changing the rules for operating slots. Cities might now be favoured over rural operations, which could leave the Elora business in trouble.

Mayor furious to hear Grand River Raceway could possibly lose slots

by David Meyer

ELORA

“Betrayed.”

That was the word Centre Wellington Mayor Joanne Ross-Zuj used in a brief report to council on Monday night after meeting earlier that day with representatives from OLG, the provincial organization that governs the slots facilities and casinos across the province.

Ross-Zuj said in an interview on Tuesday OLG officials told her Ontario is being divided into 29 zones and current slots facilities and racetracks will have the opportunity to find private partners to run slots and casino operations.

She said OLG officials felt they had a “very productive meeting” with her, but the township can take very little from it.

Ross-Zuj said she understands the OLG wants to better serve its customers to be profitable. But, she added, the proposal again slams rural areas in favour of cities. It will be up to the Grand River Agricultural Society and other societies that run race tracks to find new deals with private companies.

Grand River Raceway general manager Ted Clarke said in an interview that in his meeting with OLG officials he learned OLG will still oversee the gambling operations.

The 29 zones have not yet been decided but there are strong hints Kitchener-Waterloo will be in the local zone.

The Grand River Agricultural Society spent $20 to $25 million to build the slots facility and borrowed much money to do so. Clarke was unsure if he could say how much it still owes on that work. The money the society receives from slots is used to maintain the facility and the track. Clarke has not yet consulted with his board of directors about the latest announcement from OLG.

OLG spokesman Toni Bitonti said OLG has been handing the provincial government $2 billion a year, but that is stagnating and is not sustainable, with British Columbia and Quebec gambling operations doing much better.

The law states there can be no privatized gambling, so the OLG will take an overseer’s focus and regulate gambling and its games.

“We’re confident the private sector is going to be interested in these sites,” Bitonti said.

He said if there is no one to take on a site within a zone, “worst case” the OLG could still operate it.

In Toronto, MGM, a major gambling operation from the United States, has already stated it has no interest in small operations and wants a mega-casino or nothing.

Bitonti said the OLG will issue a request for information in the next few weeks to determine interest and then issue requests for proposals, likely this fall.

He said when casino and slots gambling was first made legal it was placed in border areas but it now makes no sense to operate small slot facilities at race tracks when there is a nearby casino - especially with American competition after the Canadian operations opened. That is why the tracks in Sarnia, Windsor and Fort Erie lost their slots facilities shortly after the Ontario government announced its budget in March.

He said host municipalities will continue to receive a share of the profits and that could increase. He said Centre Wellington has received about $15 million since the slots opened in 2003. About $3 million of that was paid to Wellington County.

But Ross-Zuj is upset for residents and the agricultural society, which she said has been an exemplary partner since the track moved from Elmira to Elora.

She said it is “a clear message here. Probably our gaming will not be at our site unless we can compete with cities.”

She fears for people who invested heavily in the horse industry under the aegis of a government that wanted to place gambling at race tracks, where betting was already taking place for horse racing.

“People spent millions,” she said of those investments in farms, stables and other horse related enterprises. “They are pulling the rug out from underneath them.”

Ross-Zuj said the racetrack and slots did not come to Elora without a great deal of pain. The community was strongly divided and there were court cases and an Ontario Municipal Board hearing.

Those who objected had to pay thousands of dollars over the lost court battles, and the fight pitted neighbour against neighbour - and that took a long time to heal.

Clarke said there is no doubt the horsemen’s group that benefited from a share of the slots profits will see a major effect. He predicted purses, the best way to attract top horses to the track and encourage the breeding industry, could be reduced by as much as 66 per cent when the slots payment agreement ends next spring.

“It is an enormously negative impact on horse racing in Ontario,” he said.

As for losing the slots, Clarke said, “Yes, we could be left in the cold with a gaming facility built somewhere else within the zone.”

Clarke is unsure what zone Elora might fall under, but he said there is one bright spot for now. It takes a long time - two to three years - to build a slots facility, and the local community will have to approve such a facility. He added the society has a proven track record of operating a gaming facility and a private company might find that is attractive.

Bitonti said if someone proposes a new slots facility or casino, it will be up to the municipality through a referendum or a vote of council to make that decision.

Clarke noted that over the years in Ontario, gaming has become much more acceptable than when it first began, and some of the tactics used to oppose such facilities might no longer work for opponents. On the other hand, polls in Toronto show a strong distaste for the provincial plan to place a casino there.

As for the horse racing industry, Clarke said he heard the NDP had asked the minority Liberal government and leader Dalton McGuinty to provide the industry with some “transitional assistance in creating whatever the new picture will be for pari-mutuel horse racing.”

Clarke added, “They’ve chosen a path that has really shaken horse racing to its roots.”

There is an article in Inside Wellington’s Equine Edition this week detailing the lobbying that township, county and raceway officials are making to get the Liberal decision reversed.

Vol 45 Issue 17

April 27, 2012

ReliableFord

Wellington North Guide 2018-2019

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