London Free Press - April 18, 2018

Stephen in front of casino

A generation after Londoners voted overwhelmingly against a casino, a problem gambling expert is warning that a massive new casino could spell major addiction issues for the city.

But new numbers from city hall suggest many Londoners are in favour of expanded gambling, after an informal online survey found nearly 70 per cent support for the concept.

The ratio – based on feedback received by the city in an unscientific survey – is an exact reversal of the 70 per cent of citizens who voted against building a casino in London when the question was on the ballot during the 1997 civic election.

The social impacts were a big part of the conversation then, too. Now a proposal by Gateway Casinos & Entertainment to build a $140-million casino complex has brought those worries to the surface again.

Rob Simpson, former head of the Guelph-based Ontario Gambling Research Centre, warns an expanded casino could cause a spike in problem gambling.

“Every gamble, by definition, is loaded against the player and in favour of the casino,” Simpson said. “I don’t care if people gamble, but I really care when there’s harm involved.”

About 2.2 per cent of Ontarians are problem gamblers. Their losses account for 24.1 per cent of overall government-sponsored gambling revenue, a 2013 study from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta said.

Problem gamblers account for 56 per cent of table game revenue and 31 per cent of slot game revenue, the study found.

But it seems Londoners are more interested with the economic impact of a potential new casino and entertainment facility – Gateway’s proposal includes 450 more slot machines, 46 table games and restaurants, with a hotel to follow in a later phase – than social impacts.

“We’re in such an abysmal state of jobs and employment in London that people are looking for anything they can get,” said Cheryl Miller, a former city councillor who led the charge against building a casino back in the 1990s.

Fifty-four per cent of people who participated in an informal online survey last month were strongly in favour of expanded gambling, with another 15 per cent somewhat supportive. About thirty per cent of respondents were opposed.

Coun. Josh Morgan said it’s up to council to make a decision that’s in the best interest of Londoners.

“There’s a balance here. I’m certainly very sensitive to the concerns about the social impacts of gaming on the community. I’m also conscious of the job creation and economic activities that large construction – as well as ongoing (gambling) activities – create,” he said.

Jobs, economic activity and entertainment options are the top reasons for supporting the casino, according to Londoners who filled out the online survey. Gateway has said its investment will create 700 new jobs.

One fifth of people who responded to the survey identified revenue impacts – the city gets a cut of gambling revenue, which in 2017 totalled $5 million – as a top benefit.

The vast majority of those opposed to expanding gambling highlighted social impacts as their chief concern.

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. (OLG) spent $58 million on promoting responsible gaming in 2017 alone, spokesperson Tony Bitonti said in an email.

Some $38 million has been earmarked for treatment, research and prevention programs while the remaining $19 million funds the OLG’s responsible gaming program, which includes player support and employee training.

Coun. Stephen Turner pushed for a detailed cost benefit analysis on Gateway’s proposal, but has yet to see one. He said he wants more information before he makes a decision on expanded gaming in the city.

“I haven’t been able to find anything that correlates the size of the gambling facility with the size of the problem. I’m a little bit worried about that,” he said.

“We’re going in blind. I have a lot of apprehensions with it.”

Gateway did not return requests for comment on Wednesday. Negotiations between the city and company seem to have stalled after more than a year of debate, and Gateway has threatened to move the casino to another location.

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