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There can only be one: Ajax, Pickering fight for right to host casino

A guest tries out the slot machines at Slots at Ajax Downs in this photo from 2006.

Jim Ross/Handout/OLGC

The cornfield stretches as far as the eye can see. But amid the rows of stalks, there are billboards depicting an incongruous scene: a dramatic nighttime rendering of a massive entertainment complex featuring a casino, a water park, a convention centre and multiple hotels.

The signs promise that the development is "coming soon" to this patch of farmland in Pickering. But despite winning city council support, the future of the main attraction – the casino – is still very much up in the air.

Just eight kilometres away in Ajax, the owner of a 10-year-old slot-machine and horse-racing facility has also secured approval from local leaders to rezone the site for a casino expansion.

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The catch? The two casino projects cannot co-exist. Under Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. rules, there can be only one casino in the geographic zone that includes Pickering and Ajax.

The high stakes have led to a battle between the mayors of the neighbouring communities, who both want the jobs, spinoff businesses and millions in hosting fees that a large casino would bring. Their embrace of gaming expansion is in sharp contrast to the reception given to a proposal to build a large downtown casino in Toronto, which was overwhelmingly rejected by city council three years ago.

"[Pickering] wants the jobs and the revenue source that Ajax has enjoyed for the past decade, and that is natural," Ajax Mayor Steve Parish said. "They're, to put it bluntly, envious of what Ajax has … and they want to snatch it."

While the mayors of Pickering and Ajax emphasize that the majority of voters in their communities have supported casinos on past ballots, there are lingering concerns – even from some gamblers – about the negative impact of expansion.

"Casinos are bad for communities. They really are. There's nothing constructive here. Sure, people do have jobs, but it's coming at an awful expense," said Andrew, a regular at the Slots at Ajax Downs who withheld his last name because he does not want management to know his views.

Ajax Town Council has approved an application from Ajax Downs' property owners to rezone the site for an expanded casino with up to 200 live-table games and 2,500 slot machines, triple the current 800. But that move is being appealed by proponents of Durham Live, the casino and entertainment complex in Pickering. An Ontario Municipal Board hearing is scheduled to begin in March, 2017.

And the City of Pickering's approval of a rezoning application for Durham Live is being appealed by the Town of Ajax. The OMB hearing took place earlier this year; a decision has not yet been released.

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"The reality is that the City of Pickering has an opportunity. We want to take full advantage of the opportunity that's presented," Pickering Mayor David Ryan said. "I wouldn't call it a dispute. I think that there's a natural competition that evolves from this, as one would expect."

However, even if the rezoning efforts go ahead – and both could be successful – there is no guarantee a casino company will choose to open the doors to a new facility in Ajax or Pickering. The OLG is privatizing its day-to-day casino operations and selling off the rights to operate a facility in the area, so it will be up to the new operator to choose a site for any future expansion.

A handful of companies are preparing bids for the right to operate the OLG's so-called GTA gaming bundle, which consists of the Slots at Ajax Downs, the Slots at Woodbine and the Great Blue Heron Casino in Port Perry. "There is a lot of interest," said Tony Bitonti, an OLG spokesman.

The successful bidder, expected to be announced next summer, could keep the Ajax Downs facility as it currently exists, expand it, move the site to Pickering or choose another option. Any relocation plan must be approved by the relevant municipality, the OLG and the provincial government.

Millions of dollars in municipal revenue are on the line. Expanding Ajax Downs would increase the town's hosting fees to between $9.5-million and $12.3-million annually, up from the current $6.8-million, according to the town. The expanded facility would employ up to 700 people and create 435 indirect jobs.

In an example of the barbs being traded between the two suburbs, Ajax's Mr. Parish said the town offered to share its hosting fees, but Pickering rejected the offer.

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"We tried to avoid any such disputes or jealousy or coveting of what we had by offering to share and that was rejected," he said.

For his part, Pickering's Mr. Ryan said no concrete proposal to spread the wealth was made despite talks at the staff level. "There was no formal offer forthcoming," he said, adding that the City of Pickering has promised to share hosting fees with other communities if the Durham Live casino goes ahead.

The Durham Live proposal – which also includes hotels, a convention centre, a performing arts centre, a cinema, a water park and a film studio – would create an estimated 10,000 direct jobs and bring in $37-million annually in hosting fees from the casino, according to forecasts. The developer says the complex would proceed without a casino, but the scale and spinoffs would be significantly reduced.

At lunchtime recently, the sounds of money coming and going filled the air at the Slots at Ajax Downs. One young man appeared to be dozing off as he kept pressing the betting button on a slot machine. Some couples sat together, one person playing as the other watched. Every so often, someone cashed out at green machines scattered throughout the room.

Outside, where smokers gathered, the proposed gaming expansion elicited mixed views.

"There's enough slots for me," said Beverley Barber, an 85-year-old retired bookkeeper who says she brings a maximum of $40 to bet every couple of weeks.

Others supported plans to expand the facility. "I hope Ajax gets it," said Harry Fudge, a 67-year-old retired jeweller who says he doesn't gamble but came along with his wife. "I think it's a great idea. Put the students to work – everybody."

As he sat on a bench with a friend, Andrew said despite his interest in gambling, which he said he profits from, casinos are deeply destructive. "These places are in the business of destroying human lives," the unemployed 48-year-old said. "The sad thing is it's the same people here every day."

Asked how often he and his friend come to play the slots, he said: "Almost daily. We're not addicts, though."

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