Elora raceway bracing for casino decision

February 25, 2013

It’s a safe bet there will be more than a few people from Elora’s Grand River Raceway who will be closely watching their neighbours in Woolwich Township March 5.

That’s the night councillors in the municipality next door are expected to vote on whether they want to host a new casino with up to 1,200 slot machines and hundreds of gaming tables.

For anti-gambling advocates, the idea of a casino that big threatens to fuel problem gambling, tear families apart and steal millions away from other local businesses. Others in the business community are salivating at the prospect of a major gambling facility they say could draw tourists, attract convention goers and spur other economic spinoffs.

But for those who work at Grand River Raceway, and the Township of Centre Wellington that enjoys the millions in revenue it provides every year, there’s far more on the table.

If Woolwich Township votes in favour of pursuing a casino, and it’s looking like the mayor and councillors are tempted to do so, Elora’s decade-old racetrack and slots parlour will most certainly be in jeopardy.

That’s because Centre Wellington has the misfortune of being lumped together with most of Waterloo Region under a new gaming zone created by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp.

The OLG, in the middle of an ambitious expansion plan that aims to grow revenues by $1 billion within five years, has made it clear that it will only allow one municipality in the local gaming zone to have a casino. And it would prefer if that casino were closer to the urban populations in Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge.

As far as OLG logic goes, far more people from those cities would gamble if the casino weren’t a half-hour drive away in Elora.

So tough luck for Grand River Raceway and the little gambling venue it has run successfully for the past decade in Centre Wellington, drawing about 1,700 people a day — the OLG is seeing bigger dollar signs just down the road.

For the OLG’s ambitious revenue growth plans to succeed, they need Ontarians to gamble more often. And Waterloo Region, with its roughly 550,000 people, is one of the last big untapped markets in the province.

How much do they hope to tap? Guelph’s Rob Simpson, former chief executive officer of the Ontario Problem Gambling Centre, estimates a casino of the size being proposed in Woolwich would draw at least $216 million a year from the economies of Waterloo Region and Guelph.

Regardless of your opinion of casinos, or gambling in general, this whole expansion process chosen by the OLG is unfortunate. It pits neighbouring municipalities against each other.

Ironically, it was Woolwich Township’s decision more than a dozen years ago not to allow slots at the former Elmira raceway that caused the racetrack to move down the road into Elora, where it found a willing host. Now, the roles are reversed, and it’s Elora that’s worried about the future of its racetrack without slots.

Grand River Raceway’s general manager, Dr. Ted Clarke, insists the racetrack, which employs as many as 120 people at the peak of racing season, can survive the loss of slots, but he knows it would be a smaller operation than it is today.

Race prizes would be much smaller, for starters, since the slots cover about 60 per cent of the prize money that goes toward harness racing.

As for the 160 people OLG employs at the Elora raceway, things are more uncertain. Same story for the Township of Centre Wellington, where proceeds from the racetrack’s 240 slots put about $2 million into its coffers every year.

So will Woolwich Township take a gamble on a casino? We don’t know that yet. Will a “yes” vote send ripples through Grand River Raceway? You can bet on that.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based writer whose column appears every third Saturday. He can reached at greg_mercer@hotmail.com and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca

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