After almost 15 years in office, Ontario’s Liberal government was taken down by the Progressive Conservative Party which won the provincial elections on Thursday. One of the many things Tories promised during the campaign was to bring back the Slots at Racetracks Program. Also, under the new government, Ajax residents hope to keep their gambling facility which is set to be replaced by Durham Live in Pickering.
On Thursday, businessman Doug Ford led the Progressive Conservatives (PC) into victory in the 2018 Ontario general election less than three months after he was chosen as the new party leader. Replacing Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals, the Tories have won 76 seats, while the New Democratic Party (NDP) has 39 seats. The Liberals who ruled the province now have only 7 seats, while another seat was secured by the Greens. And while analysts are currently debating the historic political shift after yesterday’s elections, most communities are now concerned with rather earthly and mundane issues. For some, this is the future of gaming.
In 2013, the Slots at Racetracks Program (SARP) was cancelled by the Liberal government as part of Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation’s modernization strategy. With this strategy, the OLG, which is a Crown corporation, wanted to replace most slots parlours at racetracks with full-fledged casinos, to build more casinos, and to privatize most lottery and gaming operations. However, it was the SARP that provided funding for the struggling horse racing industry in the province by sharing the slots revenue with it. It allocated 20 per cent of slots revenue to the industry. When the funding programme was scrapped, most racetracks saw decreasing revenues, as did the cities and municipalities that hosted them.
In the meantime, the OLG started to grant private companies contracts for operating its casinos and slots parlours. More casinos opened, but racetracks experienced a decline in the business, although most of them managed to retain their slots. This was not welcomed by Ontario’s smaller, rural communities. But all this could change very soon because last week, Tories promised that if they do rise to power, they would reinstate SARP. Jim Wilson, who was re-elected by voters in Simcoe-Grey, said in an official statement last week that the future Tory government would start working on a way to bring back the program as soon as possible.
It should also be mentioned that Ontario’s new premier, Doug Ford, said last week during a campaign stop in Port Colborne that supports the horse racing industry. Whether the new legislature would really bring back the Slots at Racetracks Program remains to be seen.
Hopes for Resolving Controversial Ajax Downs Issue
One of the most pressing issues in the Durham Region before the elections was the future of Ajax Downs, a popular racetrack in the Town of Ajax which has more than 800 slot machines and e-tables. According to the plans proposed by Great Canadian Gaming, the venue’s new operator, the slots parlour at Ajax Downs would be replaced with a new and larger casino complex in Pickering. The new casino is expected to open in 2019, which corners Ajax residents who believe that the slots are essential for keeping the racetrack attractive to visitors.
After the elections, however, it became clear that PC Rod Phillips won in Ajax, which means that Tories would probably try to keep Ajax Downs just as it is, although the Pickering site has been confirmed multiple times. The problem is that according to the OLG rules, only one gaming venue can exist in the region. With the development of Durham Live, the slots in Ajax would be closed. Conservatives, however, have declared their support for Ajax Downs several times, including Rod Phillips, who is a former OLG executive.
Moreover, the selection of Great Canadian as a primary operator of the Greater Toronto Area gaming bundle was controversial to say the least, according to the PC party. The agreement includes Ajax Downs and its “expanding” to Pickering, among others. With that deal, the company, previously probed for money laundering allegations in its River Rock Casino, was given the right to run facilities at Woodbine, slots at Ajax Downs and the Great Blue Heron Casino.
PC representatives said that the casino deal should be stopped and investigated, especially knowing that the Liberal government has lobbied for it. Some experts also believe that the deal purchase price was much lower than expected and that OLG, therefore the government and all Ontario’s taxpayers, have lost around $1 billion.