By Catherine O’Hara
Should the City of Hamilton want to play host to a casino, a gaming complex featuring live horse racing should be located in Flamborough.
That’s what the Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale MPP would like developed in his riding.
“I could see a facility in Flamborough, if that’s what the city wants, with some expanded gaming opportunities but I sure don’t want to see it in isolation of horse racing,” said MPP Ted McMeekin, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs at the Flamborough Chamber of Commerce’s Jan. 16 meeting at the Dutch Mill Country Market, where he was the guest speaker. “Apart from the horses, to be frank, all bets are off.”
The future of horse racing in Ontario was the main topic discussed at last week’s meeting, attended by roughly 50 individuals, who turned out to hear the Minister deliver a brief address about the state of the province before taking questions from guests in attendance.
“It wasn’t that long ago that we made the controversial decision to end the Slots at Racetracks Program so we could devote more money – some $345 million a year – to education and health care,” said McMeekin. “Now, I’ll stand by that decision and at the same time note that I want to try and develop a vibrant future for the racing industry in Ontario.”
In June, the Minister of Agriculture instructed a blue-ribbon panel to consult with the province’s horse racing industry after his government decided to axe the profit-sharing agreement between the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation and racetrack operators, effective March 31, 2013.
The panel, said McMeekin, has worked tirelessly to glean information from stakeholders and develop a model that would ensure the industry’s viability in the future.
The group, which included former cabinet ministers John Wilkinson, John Snobelen and Elmer Buchanan, did just that, said McMeekin.
“They suggested that the SARP (Slots at Racetracks Program) was not good public policy. There were problems with it and that there needed to be some changes if the industry was to survive long-term,” he said.
But little has been made public about the new model, including how much funding will be allocated to maintain the health of the industry, say horsemen, some of whom where in attendance at the Dutch Mill for the Flamborough Chamber of Commerce meeting.
According to Snobelen, who took to the mic last Wednesday morning, announcements about the future of horse racing in Ontario are expected soon as the panel continues to facilitate negotiations between the OLG and racetrack operators.
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“We have been pushing as hard as we can to make sure that decisions can be made across the board as quickly as possible,” said the panellist, adding that locally, the three-member group has received the full co-operation of Great Canadian Gaming, the owner and operator of Flamboro and Georgian Downs, which recently voiced its commitment to horse racing.
“No one really expects really, really good news in the sense that it can’t be what it was. These are not those times,” said Snobelen following the meeting. “But I think there is every reason for optimism that there will be a healthy horse racing industry for my grandchildren.”
Despite reassurances from McMeekin and members of the transition panel, horsemen and women remain concerned.
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“We don’t believe that the government has a true understanding of the cost benefit of doing what they are doing,” said Brian Tropea, general manager of the Ontario Harness Horse Association, following McMeekin’s address. “We don’t think, to this day, that they understand the impacts of putting these people out of work and people losing their farms and having their trucks and trailers repossessed and this type of thing.”
And this, he noted, is a reality for many employed by the horse racing industry.
“Listening at what I heard today, you’d swear that there is nothing going on,” said Donna Skelly, the Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale Progressive Conservative candidate, who attended the Jan. 16 meeting. “There’s such a disconnect between the reality of the cancellation of this program, how it’s going to affect the residents and farmers in this community and what is being said, politically.”
While McMeekin and Snobelen spoke extensively about their work on the horse-racing portfolio, Hamilton Mayor Bob Bratina was invited to speak about the city’s work on the casino file.
“The issue for Hamilton right now is the future site of a casino,” noted Bratina.
Council has already voted in support of maintaining operations at Flamboro Downs in an attempt to ensure the success of the city’s agricultural sector, namely the horse racing industry.
However, should a casino be located elsewhere in the city, Bratina suggested the possibility of re-allocating the funds Hamilton receives from the OLG – roughly $4.5 million annually – to support horse racing at Flamboro Downs.
“…I think it’s fair to consider whether the city should apply some (or all) of those proceeds to sustain the horse racing industry,” noted the mayor, stressing the municipality’s strong rural and agricultural footprint – a $2 billion sector in Hamilton.
“Could we look at transferring the horse racing portion of the property to some organization that could write a charitable receipt, for instance, take the property and then operate it beside but separate from the actual casino?” It’s a possibility, said Bratina, who has spoken with McMeekin about the city’s options. “We are not finished discussing that around the council table.”
However, the mayor’s proposal came as a surprise to Flamborough councillors Robert Pasuta (Ward 14) and Judi Partridge (Ward 15), who say this has yet to be mentioned at city hall.
“I, certainly as a councillor for the area, have not been privy to any discussions that the mayor has had with regards to this new-found funding model,” said Partridge. “It would have to be decided by council and, to my knowledge, it certainly has not been discussed with us as councillors.”
Pasuta recalls the mayor mentioning this at a recent committee meeting. “He has mentioned it before but it’s nothing that has been run by councillors; it’s nothing that has come from staff,” he said.
Should Bratina’s suggestion of re-allocating the municipality’s share of the slots revenues to bolster horse racing occur, the Ward 14 councillor said, “it wouldn’t keep horse racing going” – not in their “wildest dreams.”
Flamborough’s elected municipal officials remain unwavering in their support of Flamboro Downs.
“The casino must be located at Flamboro Downs so we have a casino, slots and racetrack operations,” said Partridge.
And while the decision of hosting a casino comes down to the municipality’s willingness, there are three other parties involved in the decision-making process.
“We are at the end of the table waiting for the scraps,” said Pasuta.