In 2013, Ottawa City Council was asked by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission to consider becoming a host City for a new casino. When the debate turned to concern for the future of horse racing and the loss of rural jobs, Council ultimately decided (16-7) to request an expanded gaming facility with the provision that the only acceptable location would be the Rideau Carleton Raceway (RCR). I did not support this decision. Although I appreciate the importance of rural jobs and could see some possible future economic development benefits, I believed that the positives were outweighed by the negatives. I also fundamentally believed that this decision should have been made after a comprehensive community consultation which did not happen.
The RCR is in a rural area not served by public transit and lacks the transportation infrastructure to support this car oriented use. During the casino discussions in 2013, I moved a motion that spoke of the potential traffic impacts from an expanded casino and how as a Council we could best protect and prepare for those changes. Included in my motion was a provision that the successful proponent, Hard Rock International, be required to complete a Community Transportation Study (CTS). This comprehensive analysis must include looking at the possibility of moving the RCR entrance to Bank Street, widening surrounding roads and improving public transit. Currently, the RCR is served by Albion Road and it is imperative that steps be taken to protect the surrounding residential neighbourhoods including, Blossom Park and Emerald Woods.
Increasing the opportunity for gambling in our City comes with social and health impacts that have both emotional and financial costs. In 2013, Ottawa Public Health (OPH) recommended against expanding gambling in our city stating that there are over 13,000 people in Ottawa currently struggling with a gambling addiction. Impacts on families as a result of problem gambling are significant. Service providers have estimated a funding shortfall for the treatment of problem gambling at $4,500 per person. OPH recommended that the city contribute 6.5% of their proceeds to an education and awareness campaign. They further suggested that the OLG allocate $2 million annually to the Champlain LHIN for local treatment. On balance it appears that the introduction of more gaming in Ottawa could result in a “net negative”.
Although the measures Council adopted in 2013 fell short of what OPH recommended, City Council did specify a number of measures intended to reduce the risk of problem gambling including: limiting hours of operations, restricting the number of slots and tables (max 21), and eliminating loyalty programs. It is my hope that the new proponents honour these requirements and that Council go further by committing dollars to a locally-focused approach to preventing gambling –related harms.
I believe that governments have a primary responsibility for the quality of life, well being, and health of its citizens. There should have been a comprehensive community consultation and in the end I am disappointed that Council pushed forward such an impactful decision without fully considering the views of our residents. While there appears to be no turning back, I will continue to work based on evidence to ensure the social, health, and traffic impacts are mitigated for our residents. And while the new partners are already musing about a future expansion, I believe Council and the community must make it clear that no further expansions will be entertained.