Provincial gaming officials are resurrecting a long-standing debate over constructing a casino in the nation's capital.
In announcing sweeping changes to the way Ontario residents can buy lottery tickets, Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. chairman Paul Godfrey said a new casino could come to Ottawa, according to media reports.
Such a facility would compete fiercely with the 17-year-old Casino du Lac Leamy, which saw revenues drop two per cent in 2010-11 to $260.5 million.
In the late 1980s, Ottawa city councillors approved a proposal for a casino on Sparks Street, but it was never built. Several other casino projects were put forward to council through the mid to late-1990s but were also dropped after the Casino du Lac-Leamy opened in Gatineau.
In 2007, the Bank Street Promenade Business Improvement Association pitched the idea of a casino to then-mayor Larry O'Brien, who called it "a great idea."
However, the idea never came to fruition.
Separately, the OLG report said the Crown Corp. will also close or relocate "underperforming" gaming facilities in favour of opening new ones closer to potential customers and expand slots beyond racetracks.
On the chopping block is a revenue-sharing agreement with racetracks that gives them a cut of the slot profits, amounting to $345 million a year. The horseracing industry has warned the move will put thousands of people out of work.
No information on locations targeted for closure were disclosed. A complete financial picture of the Rideau Carleton Raceway in Ottawa is not immediately clear, but additional slot machines in Ottawa could further erode its already declining revenues.
The Albion Road facility reported $37.2 million in gaming revenues between July and September in 2011, the most recent fiscal quarter for which data is available, according to OLG records. That's down from $37.8 million a year earlier and $38.4 million during the same period in 2009.
Last year, critics said the local game hall botched its introduction of bingo to the detriment of the local sector.
The governing Liberals, who are facing a $16-billion deficit this year, gave the green light Monday to the OLG's recommendations to "modernize" gambling and add $1.3 billion a year to provincial coffers.
Under the plan, Ontario residents will be able to buy lottery tickets online and at their local Wal-Mart and play the odds at a new Toronto-area casino under a six-year plan to boost gambling revenues to the cash-strapped province.
The Crown corporation plans to sell lottery tickets online and at checkout lanes in supermarkets and big-box stores, rather than doling them out at a single customer-service station, said Mr. Godfrey.
"Lottery tickets could be in drug stores, multi-lane stores - the Wal-Marts, the Costcos of the world," he said.
Ontario needs to modernize gambling because offshore gaming websites and plummeting U.S. traffic are taking a bite out of OLG's revenues, $2 billion of which goes to the province each year, Godfrey said.
He said the new measures will bring in an extra $4.6 billion over six years, create 2,300 new jobs in the gaming industry and another 4,000 service industry jobs at hotels, restaurants, entertainment and retail industries.
"It's about jobs, and it's about updating a Crown corporation that, as we pointed out, has a strategy that was designed in the early 1990s in a very, very different world," said Finance Minister Dwight Duncan.
OLG also plans to expand private sector involvement by having private operators run all its facilities, take over the remaining 4,000 gaming employees who still work for OLG and finance its expansion from 27 facilities to 29 by 2017-18.
Currently, only four facilities - Casinorama, Caesars Windsor, Niagara Fallsview and Great Blue Heron - are privately run.
The OLG plans to turn to the private sector for a new casino in the Greater Toronto Area and perhaps in Ottawa, Mr. Godfrey said. It's also open to setting up a temporary casino until a more permanent facility is constructed.
Successive governments have mulled over proposals to build a Toronto casino, well before the Liberals took power in 2003.
While there are no plans to close casinos in border towns like Niagara and Windsor, Godfrey acknowleged a GTA casino could draw gamblers - and the money they spend - away from other OLG facilities.
"Yes, there will be some erosion," Mr. Godfrey said. "Will it cause their demise? I don't believe that."
Both Mr. Godfrey and Mr. Duncan were tight-lipped on where the GTA casino may be located, saying they'll need to talk first with municipal leaders and see what kind of pitch they get from companies who want to bid on the project.
However, Mr. Godfrey and other OLG officials had high praise for Woodbine racetrack in Toronto, noting that it's one of the busiest gaming floors in North America. Ontario Place, a 39-hectare park along Toronto's waterfront that has been shut down for redevelopment, could be another possible location.
OLG officials said 26 communities have already expressed interest in hosting a new casino.
But the New Democrats say gambling shouldn't be expanded in a province where so many people have suffered from addiction.
"We know the majority of people that play whatever sort of gambling, they lose," said NDP critic Rosario Marchese.
"And they want to balance the budget on the backs of desperate families who want to try to become millionaires. In my view, that's not the way to raise money."
The OLG said it will ramp up its support of education, research, prevention and treatment of problem gambling, which currently amounts to $52 million a year.
But Ontario also needs to move with the times, Mr. Godfrey said. OLG will launch online gambling later this year, but there's more to be done to remain competitive.
"The fact is, if we do not do anything at all, we stand still, the OLG's revenues will erode. The bottom line to this province will erode," Mr. Godfrey said.
"You've got to face the fact: standing still is not an option."
-With reports by Maria Babbage of the Canadian Press