Melnyk unveils counterproposal for Kanata complex
A committee of city councillors voted Monday to support the Rideau Carleton Raceway as the sole location for an expanded casino in the city, hours after Mayor Jim Watson announced the province had rejected his request for a second gaming zone.
© File photo
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson.
By David Sali
The finance and economic development committee again endorsed Rideau Carleton as the only acceptable location for new gaming tables despite an impassioned plea from Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk to open up the bidding to other groups.
The committee’s recommendation – which passed by a 10-1 vote, with Coun. Diane Deans the lone dissenter – will go to full council for a vote on Wednesday.
Mr. Watson defended the committee’s decision to throw its support behind the raceway.
“We have a longstanding relationship with them, we have the zoning in place,” he said. “I think the jury was out in terms of support for going into another location. The RCR had strong support around the council table and that’s the direction that council’s going.”
The decision likely brings to an end Mr. Watson’s quest to look at building two casinos in the city.
A full meeting of city council decided in July to get clarity from the province over whether it would allow a second gaming facility to be built in the city before proceeding with the raceway option.
Mr. Watson hoped the province would create a separate gaming zone for the raceway. That would allow a second casino to be located elsewhere in the city away from the one proposed for the raceway.
On Monday morning, however, Mr. Watson released a letter from Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa saying the province would not entertain the idea of having two casinos in Ottawa.
Mr. Sousa wrote that provincial body responsible for gambling, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp., had already looked into the possibility of two casinos even before Monday’s debate and that nothing had happened that would change its mind.
Monday’s vote to support the raceway, meanwhile, has re-opened old wounds about where the gaming facility should be located.
Mr. Melnyk said after the vote he’s not giving up in his quest for a casino near the Canadian Tire Centre, arguing the city’s endorsement of Rideau Carleton amounts to sole-sourcing the project.
“It’s obviously a major disappointment for our organization,” he said. “I think it’s now a legal matter our attorney’s going to be dealing with.”
In his presentation to the committee, Mr. Melnyk unveiled his plan for a $500-million entertainment complex near the arena – a proposal that he stressed would be contingent on being allowed to build a gaming facility at the site.
The site would include a 150,000- to 200,000-square-foot casino with 2,000 slots and 100 gaming tables – the maximum the OLG will allow in the Ottawa zone. His plans also call for 850,000 square feet of office space, 300,000 square feet of retail, an ampitheatre, 800 hotel rooms and underground parking.
The pharmaceutical magnate, who bought the Senators franchise 10 years ago Monday, said he’s lost tens of millions of dollars on the hockey team since then.
He said the area around the arena needs to become more of an entertainment destination with the casino as an anchor if the franchise is to survive in the long run.
“The major benefit to us is that we sustain the franchise, keep ticket prices at a reasonable rate,” he said.
“The benefit to us is more related to the cross-marketing between a destination site and simply a hockey team. You have to have that – otherwise, it’s a recipe for failure, frankly. We will keep going, but we have to come up with a plan C. I don’t know what else to do. I’m out of ideas.”
Mr. Melnyk said he can’t understand why the city clearly appears to be favouring the raceway over his organization. He saved the Senators franchise from relocating to the United States when he bought it, he said, and feels like he’s getting a slap in the face in return.
“I just don’t get it,” he said. “I don’t want to say who’s more important and who gives more to the community, but I will. Is there a Rideau Carleton Raceway foundation that has given $87 million in the last 10 years? What are they giving back to the community?”
Mr. Watson said that in hindsight, the city could have avoided much of the controversy if it had simply asked the OLG for preferential treatment for the raceway when council first agreed to allow expanded gaming.
“I don’t think it’s been a particularly smooth process, and I’ll take the blame for that,” he said.
Still, the mayor said he doesn’t think Monday’s decision will jeopardize the city’s long-term relationship with Mr. Melnyk and the Senators organization.
“We’re following that model that other cities are doing,” he said, noting other communities such as Hamilton have also imposed restrictions on where they would allow a new casino to be built. “With respect to Mr. Melnyk, there’s no guarantee he would win the bid in the first place. We’ve always had a very strong relationship with the Senators and I expect that to continue.”
Also Monday, the committee endorsed by a vote of 8-3 a motion by Coun. Keith Egli urging the OLG to impose a number of new restrictions on the expanded casino site.
This includes forcing it to close at least six hours a day, prohibiting ATMs on the floor and limiting the areas where alcohol can be served.
Mr. Egli said the rules are designed to help cut down on the negative health and social impacts of problem gambling.
“It’s here. It’s not going away,” he said of gambling. “We have to deal with it.”
The city also stressed that there are limits to how much it is willing to support the growth of gambling.
Officials at the Rideau Carleton Raceway told councillors they eventually intend to expand the number of gaming units at the facility if there is a casino built there.
However Mr. Watson said he would not support a further expansion of the 1,250 slots and 21 table games the city has already endorsed for the raceway.
“I'm satisfied that would be sufficient for the site,” he said. “There appears to be a general consensus that most people don’t want to see a massive expansion of gaming.”
–With files from Mark Brownlee