Register Wednesday | March 21 | 2018
Cashing Out Illustration by Chris Martin.

Cashing Out

The moral debate over gambling in small-town Ontario.

TRAFFIC JAMS FORM REGULARLY on Elmira’s main street as cars try to pass the horse-and-buggies. A narrow two-lane road handles the steady stream of drivers travelling through the town, past the Old Order Mennonites in bonnets and hats who sell maple syrup on the curb.

A small, dense neighbourhood in Woolwich Township, Elmira is just north of Kitchener-Waterloo. The township is one of the fastest-growing in the region and has seen its population increase nearly 20 percent since 2006. Elmira now boasts about 10,000 residents. The town is an architectural hodgepodge, best known for the barn-like structure of the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market, which burned down in September 2013. The century-old clock tower, however, is still wound every Tuesday morning and chimes across from a Subway/Mac's Convenience Store.

One block west of here, Woolwich’s new community centre and arena, home of the Elmira Sugar Kings junior hockey team, stands where a raceway once operated. In 2003, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Facility announced a plan to introduce slot machines at the Elmira horse racing track. Hundreds of township residents protested and, after nearly a century in business, the raceway was shuttered. A new facility, complete with slots, was opened in nearby Elora, in the township of Centre-Wellington. In the decade since, the Grand River Raceway has brought in $16.2 million of revenue for the township. 

In 2012, the Liberal provincial government and the OLG announced a “modernization” plan that would bring new gaming facilities to as many as twenty-nine zones in the province. When it solicited bids from the Waterloo region, Woolwich began a public consultation about the possibility of a casino bid. The residents of Elmira worried that a gambling facility would foster addiction and tarnish the area’s image as a family destination. Mayor Todd Cowan, who spent most of the following year as the public face of Woolwich’s bid to build a casino, stressed the financial benefits of becoming a regional gambling hub. “We like to be a destination,” Cowan said. “Right now we’re maple syrup in the market; why not a casino?”

Elmirans weren’t alone in their disquiet. As the province geared up to rake in revenue by opening rural casinos, locals and experts once again took a moral stand.

IN 1998, a casino was approved in Brantford, just over an hour’s drive from Elmira, despite aggressive opposition from the area’s mayor, Chris Friel. At the time, Friel lamented that the government was replacing ambitious capital projects with quick-fix solutions. He told the Toronto Star that it felt like the province had given up, that there was no creativity. But now that the casino has been open for fourteen years, Friel has changed his position. “It’s another industry in our community,” he told me. “You do not become a little Vegas.”

Since opening in 1999, the Brantford casino has generated over $50 million in revenue for the city. That money has been used to revitalize the downtown core, helped pay for the multimillion-dollar recreation facility that now forms the backbone of the city’s sports-tourism industry and has provided $500,000 a year in grants for various community organizations. “Church groups apply for money,” Friel says. “They’d be opposed to gambling, but they recognize that we’re using the money and putting it through another organization, so they’re supportive of it.”

The OLG estimated that by opening a casino, Woolwich could gain $4 million in annual revenue, plus $3.5 million in property tax and $900,000 in development fees. These were the numbers that mattered to “Casino Cowan,” as Elmira’s mayor was dubbed by the Kitchener media. A small, unassuming man whose demeanour belies his grandiose nickname, he is quick to note that the Township is saddled with a $63 million infrastructure deficit, and that the casino could capitalize on the visitors who come for the famed St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market and surrounding tourist village.

But similar projects have failed to attract tourists. Friel admits that around 40 percent of the Brantford casino’s business comes from area residents who enjoy gambling as a hobby, exactly what the anti-casino residents in Woolwich were afraid of.

A FEW BLOCKS EAST OF Cowan’s office, at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, pastor Richard Frey, one of several religious leaders to speak at the public meetings, calls casinos “a tax on the gullible.” At two such meetings, the Woolwich Concerned Citizens Against Gambling and representatives of the Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre repeatedly warned of fostering gambling addictions.

In an impassioned presentation before the Woolwich town council on February 19, 2013, Liana Nolan, the Waterloo Region’s chief medical officer of health, delivered a persuasive case that the casino would turn hobbies into addictions. Citing Niagara Falls, where problem gambling doubled in the year after the first casino opened, she noted similar trends in other communities with gambling facilities, including Sarnia, Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay and Brantford. Problem gamblers are essential to the business model of casinos: in Ontario, the estimated 5.5 percent of visitors who are addicted to slots produce 31 percent of casino revenue; the 12.1 percent who are addicted to table games bring in 57 percent. And, as Nolan explained, problem gambling increases with proximity to gambling facilities.

Marcus Shantz is the owner of the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market and president of the Mercedes Corporation, which owns parts of the surrounding St. Jacobs Village. He addressed council on March 5, warning that the casino’s proposed location, in the heart of the tourist district, posed a threat to the area’s identity. “We’ve spent a lot of years promoting tourism in Woolwich as a family experience, and we don’t see how a casino fits that brand,” he said.

But even stronger than the moral opposition of small-town residents living near proposed casinos was the pressure from the horse racing industry. As part of the OLG’s modernization strategy, facilities like Grand River Raceway would lose their Slots at Racetracks program. The slot machines would be moved out of horse racing facilities in favour of casino.

Industry veterans—breeders, veterinarians, track owners, jockeys—warned the loss of revenue could lead to a depression. Walter Parkinson of Standardbred Breeders, the largest breeding farm in Ontario, said he feared bankruptcy; Bill O’Donnell, president of the Central Ontario Standardbred, said, “I would say that anybody that’s in the Ontario horse racing industry will probably never, ever, ever vote Liberal ever again.”

OUTSIDE OF THE TOWN HALL MEETINGSthe centrepiece of the consultation process was a yes-or-no postcard ballot, distributed in December 2012 to households across the township. Of the 11 percent of eligible voters who replied, 62 percent opposed the casino. In response, Cowan said he took his lead from one sympathetic citizen who told him to make decisions with an eye to the township’s bottom line, not to act as its moral compass. “This is not the Church of Woolwich,” Cowan says.

The mayor and three of the town’s four councillors disregarded the referendum and voted in favour of the casino. Public backlash against the decision was quick and severe. On May 8, 2013, the regional council passed a motion asking Woolwich to reconsider its decision.

Mark Bauman is Woolwich’s longest-serving councillor, and was the only politician to vote against the bid. “Gambling addictions are a handicap, and for governments to take advantage of that as a way of filling their coffers just doesn’t make sense to me,” he said in an interview. “We’ve talked about ways to mitigate the effects of a casino,” he told his fellow councillors on March 5. “Maybe the easiest way would be not to have one?”

In December 2013, Bauman got his wish. Changing course yet again, the OLG decided that, rather than build new casinos, it would solicit bids from private-sector companies to run existing facilities. Woolwich’s casino hopes effectively ended with the announcement. The decision was bad news for Cowan and his allies. “It was like Lucy and Charlie Brown,” he says.

But the vote was good news for the horse racing facilities, which will keep their slots. Many believe that pressure from the industry was behind the OLG’s decision to change their strategy.

BEFORE THE CASINO VOTE, local resident Michelle Dunsford told council, “By saying no to a casino, you will be upholding the principles of this area: a sense of family, a sense of community.” In his office this January, I asked Cowan, who's running for mayor again this year, how he reconciled this sense of identity with a casino.

“Two older ladies came in to talk about this casino,” he remembers. “We started talking about the ills of gambling ... [One] said, ‘I don’t think we should be fundraising through that.’” Cowan told her that he’d won a 50/50 draw at a fundraising event for Elmira’s nonprofit junior hockey team, the Sugar Kings, who are nearly as central to Woolwich’s identity as its old clock tower. “That’s gambling,” he told her. A charity contest doesn’t affect the brain the same way as a slot machine—it doesn’t give the rush of instant gratification—but to Cowan, there’s no distinction. “I look at gambling like stealing—it doesn’t matter if you steal a penny or a million dollars,” he says. “It’s really still stealing.”