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OLG could use Marina Bay Sands complex in Singapore as model for Toronto casino

OLG chair Paul Godfrey meets with The Globe and Mail editorial board May 9, 2012 in Toronto.

Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

A projected casino is consuming much of the energy in Toronto politics. When a specific proposal is unveiled, however, it should be examined with care, not dogmatically rejected or uncritically embraced.

Rod Phillips, the CEO of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp., and Paul Godfrey, its chairman, appear to be on the right track. Such a development would not work if it is tawdry or grim or both. Mr. Godfrey hopes for an "integrated," high-quality facility on the shore of Lake Ontario, near the major downtown hotels, in which a casino would only be one element, accompanied by good restaurants and theatres – rather like the Marina Bay Sands complex in Singapore. In principle, such a project is quite desirable.

All this has a broader context. No business can stay long in the same place. Mr. Phillips and Mr. Godfrey deserve credit for looking ahead. OLG has to adapt to increased competition from across the border – hence the desire for a site in Canada's most populous city, at some distance from the U.S. The corporation also has to adapt changing gaming tastes.

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The whole business model needs revision. OLG is right to plan to engage with the private sector, somewhat as the British Columbia Lottery Corp. has already done. It will look for private firms to share the risk of capital expenditures and to be the operators of specific facilities. As Mr. Phillips says, it makes little sense for a Crown corporation to be worrying, for example, about personnel decisions on waiters and bartenders in casinos. But OLG is to remain the "operating mind." It all sounds a little like a nascent franchise system.

OLG and BCLC are two among a set of provincial monopolies across Canada. Ultimately, it would be better if lotteries and gaming were a competitive, independent business sector – one that would still need to be rigorously regulated. At present, however, all these Crown corporations exist only by virtue of an exemption in the Criminal Code. A new system could only come out of a huge federal-provincial transformation. And, for the time being, provincial governments are addicted to the resulting revenue.

The curious legal status of OLG and its Canadian siblings – as an exception to a group of criminal offences – is no mere remnant of Victorian morality. Problem gamblers are indeed a problem. The gaming corporations must continually update their systems to protect some of their customers from themselves. But the market is large, and the business should not be stigmatized. Pending an eventual pan-Canadian reform, the provincial gaming monopolies should be treated fairly – in downtown Toronto, as elsewhere in Canada.

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