Racetrack and Slots one step closer to end of life span

By Kris Dubé, Fort Erie Times/Niagara Advance

The provincial government is directing the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) to implement changes to its system, which could have more than noticeable impacts to Fort Erie and its largest employer.

On Monday, Ontario's finance minister Dwight Duncan held a press conference in Toronto to highlight a new 'strategic direction' that would involve a modernization of how the OLG operates.

The government has directed the OLG to implement a number of proposals such as a reconfiguration of the number of gaming sites and a tailoring of the types of activities made available at each site.

The one recommendation that has officials in Fort Erie shaking their heads is listed as a stoppage of annual payments to the horse racing industry by ending the Slots at Racetracks program by the end of March, 2013.

Other recommendations include a new casino in the Greater Toronto Area and the launching of multi-lane sales of lottery tickets at major retail outlets, including grocery stores.

Duncan says the changes will create jobs and support schools and hospitals across the province.

"We are focused, more than ever, on balancing the budget while continuing to provide the best education and health care in the world. Modernizing the OLG's operations and business model is an example of how we are ensuring our assets are delivering the greatest value to taxpayers," said the fiance minister in a press release.

The Fort Erie Racetrack is about to start its 115th season in May under the third and final year of it being operated as a non-profit organization that receives $5.6 million per year from the province to keep it open. This resulted in the formation of the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium (FELRC), comprised of representatives from the Fort Erie Economic Development and Tourism Corporation (EDTC), the Town of Fort Erie and the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Agency (HBPA).

Chief executive officer of the FELRC, Jim Thibert, who is also the EDTC's general manager, expects more will be known about the long-term situation when provincial politicians deliberate Ontario's budget at the end of the month and the recommendations brought forward by the finance minister will be voted on.

With a Liberal minority government, Thibert hopes other New Democratic Party and Conservative seat holders in the provincial legislature will challenge the recommendation and strategy for the OLG.

"Just because the government of the day wants to do something, it doesn't mean they can," said Thibert.

Following the comments made by Duncan on Monday, Thibert said there are "absurdities" that lie within the recommendations.

He feels information valid evidence on the economic impact of the proposed changes should be made available, along with more detail about how the strategy would be implemented.

If the racing industry in Ontario does crumble under the government's power, along with slots facilities that are attached to racetracks... it could mean about 65,000 jobs would be lost.

"That doesn't seem to be a very good start," said Thibert.

Although he couldn't make any predictions on what the future may hold...Thibert says the tracks and slots holds the best chance at staying alive if members of provincial parliament challenge the minister's recommendations.

"They're either going to cry wolf and run like hell and let the Liberals do what they want... or they're going to stand up and demand the government changes its policy."

What also concerns Thibert is the lack of conversation there has been between the minister's office and representatives from the horse racing industry or people from the individual racetrack-slots facilities in Ontario.

There should have been some consultation and there hasn't been."

Niagara Falls member of provincial parliament Kim Craitor says he is committed to finding a solution for the historic track and doing so is something he is familiar with, being part of striking the deal that has kept the facility open until the end of the 2012 season, which was long before the facility's financial woes began.

When it comes to gaming, Craitor says the racetrack simply would not be able to survive if the slots were removed, since it counts on the ten per cent of revenue it receives from the slots co-existing next door.

"There's not enough people that go to racetracks anymore," said Craitor.

Prior to the slots being added to the mix in 1999, Craitor said many horsemen were hesitant about its merits because they felt it would take away from the amount of patrons at the track.

"It really wasn't supported by the horse racing industry at the time," said Craitor.

Like many other officials in the area, Craitor says he will do what he can to keep the track going for more than just the upcoming season.

"I'm going to keep trying to find a way to keep funding this racetrack."

Mayor Doug Martin said it was no surprise that Duncan followed up with this recommendation, when it was first suggested after the release of the Drummond Report earlier this month.

"We had a feeling it was coming," said Martin, who also scoffed at the timing of the announcement, when many people are away from their desks during March Break.

Martin said if this recommendation does move forward, it would be devastating.

"He's going to cut the heart out of an entire industry and cut the heart out of Fort Erie," he said.

Fort Erie, along with the other 16 municipalities in Ontario that host slots facilities, are dependent on the revenue it generates for operation, infrastructure improvements...also providing a cushion for the general levy.

Martin also feels these changes being part of a plan to build a new casino in Toronto, points to the province playing favourites with the big city.

"They want to give everything to Toronto and say 'hell' to all of rural Ontario," said Martin.

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