By Jason Menard
Supporting a casino doesn’t mean you’re doubling down on vice. Nor do we need to hedge our bets. Instead, if we gamble responsibly, a new casino could be a productive addition to our community.
But to make this a winning hand, we have to make sure we’re playing the right game at the right table.
If I suggested that supporting the continued existence of licensed bars and the LCBO means that you’re pro deaths caused by drinking and driving, you’d either laugh uproariously or reevaluate any credibility I may have earned.
Yet that’s exactly the type of hyperbolic doomsday scenario that many opponents to a casino project in London are using.
The expansion of the existing casino at the Western Fair, or the building of a new one, is on the table, but opponents to the project will have you believe that a rash of personal bankruptcies, problem gamblers, and crime resulting from these problems will be the overwhelming consequences.
Much of the discussion has revolved around the expansion of the current facilities at the Western Fair. And, as per usual, those exclusively focused on downtown development as the sole harbinger of municipal growth chimed in suggesting that any casino must be placed in the core. However, there are many other options — and the best idea may be a little further afield.
For the most part, casinos aren’t placed in a metropolitan area’s downtown core. The Toronto-area’s Rama casino is far afield; Casino de Montreal has repurposed the old Expo ‘67 area, but is still a challenge to get to from the downtown core; Ottawa’s casino is off in Hull — again, farther afield but next to the highway.
In the south end of the city, there’s an incredible opportunity for a casino development. Right now there are a number of hotel properties which have been built over the past decade. Currently, they’re performing at nowhere near capacity. There are commercial properties in the area that are chronically underused — the Crossroads Centre at Exeter and Wellington or the old Superstore Mall facility that houses the old London Gardens/Ice House.
Developing a casino property there may help those hotel properties and take advantage of the proximity of the 401/402 highway system.
We have the facilities, we have the support hotel network in place (along with shopping/dining options), and we have a convenient highway.
So tell me again why it would make more sense to have a casino in the core?
And as to the argument that a casino would bring about the worst in our humanity, I’d suggest that picking and choosing our vices is a dangerous game. There are those for whom alcohol has ruined not only their own lives, but the lives of innocent others. Many tolerate recreational marijuana use, yet there are those whose lives have been irreparably damaged by this allegedly “safer” drug.
On the other hand, there are many more people who responsibly enjoy a drink now and again. There are those who play a little puff, puff, pass on the weekend to no detriment to their lives, their jobs, or their families.
And there are those who enjoy a night at the casino, set gambling limits, and play responsibly.
It all comes down to personal responsibility. If we’re so willing to accept that argument for alcohol, tobacco, and (for some) recreational drugs, why is a vice like gambling so much worse? I’ve yet to see anyone drive a craps table into oncoming traffic and kill a family of four.
I don’t believe in the “people are going to do it anyway, let’s make it legal and tax it” argument. But I do believe that a licensed casino will do a better job of supporting problem gamblers by returning a portion of the proceeds to the community and effectively training staff to recognize people at risk. They certainly will do a better job than the illegal bookies and oddsmakers that currently exist.
Perhaps there would be some ancillary benefits to the community. Many lament the lack of entertainment facilities and a casino project can help fill some of that void. A couple of months ago, I went with my family to Niagara Falls, ON. We walked through the casino and noticed marquees advertising night after night of performances — singers, dancers, and magicians.
These are acts that are too small for a Budweiser Gardens that would welcome a 1,500-3,000-seat theatre environment.
Yes, casinos can be sad environments. Walking through seeing seniors plugged into slots courtesy of a loyalty card attached to their waist can be discouraging. And, yes, some people will make mistakes.
But there are many more people who will act responsibly. There are many more people who will enjoy the option. And, maybe, there will be many people who will see London as a viable weekend destination to come see a show, spend a night or two at a quality south-end hotel, and do a little shopping at White Oaks Mall.
Sure, it’s not downtown. But as any gambler (or — if you find the reference more palatable — financial planner) will advise you, your best bet for long-term success is diversification of your assets.
A casino project may be a gamble. But it’s one that can be done responsibly — especially if we play the right hand on the right table. A table that may not be located at the Western Fair or downtown.