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Flamboro Downs preferred site for casino: committee

By Dianne Cornish, REVEW STAFF

Flamboro Downs will be first out of the gate when requests for proposals for a new Hamilton casino start streaming in sometime this year or possibly in 2014.

After months of divisive debate about whether the new casino should be located at the Highway 5 West racetrack facility or in downtown Hamilton, city councilors last Thursday voted unanimously to designate Flamboro Downs as the preferred location, but left the door open to other sites if private gaming operators can prove that the Flamborough site isn’t viable. The motion, which requires ratification at the Feb. 27 council meeting, was presented at last week’s general issues committee meeting by Flamborough’s two councilors, Judi Partridge (Ward 15) as the presenter and Robert Pasuta (Ward 14) as the seconder.

The motion is seen as a compromise to satisfy councilors who hold pro- and anti-casino views. It was reached after councilors received last-minute information from the Ontario Lottery and Gaming (OLG) Commission informing them that council can veto any casino proposal not to its liking, even after the OLG chooses a bidder.

It’s now expected councilors won’t be faced with a final decision about the casino’s location until the OLG chooses a private operator, a process that city staff estimates could take until early 2015. The time lapse leaves the door open for councilors to ask for a referendum about a casino in the downtown core on the ballot for the 2014 municipal election, if they wish.

Because Flamboro Downs is in the greenbelt, expansion of the existing complex is limited, but not prohibited. The existing building on site can be expanded as long as new uses are subordinate to existing uses on the property, such as a casino or racetrack, Ed VanderWindt, Hamilton’s director of building services, told the Review Tuesday. Building on the site can cover up to 10 per cent of the maximum lot coverage, explained the city’s director of planning Paul Mallard. With 86 hectares or over 200 acres to work with, that equates to a complex of about 900,000 square feet and Flamboro Downs “isn’t anywhere near that now,” Mallard said.

While a stand-alone hotel wouldn’t be possible, an accessory use, such as an entertainment hall added to the existing building, is a possibility. The Greenbelt Act prohibits the addition of further uses, but existing permitted uses may be expanded, VanderWindt explained.

Partridge said that a representative of Great Canadian Gaming Corporation (GCGC), which runs OLG Slots at Flamboro Downs, told her that there’s plenty of space within the existing building that isn’t being used, including a large entertainment area for concerts upstairs. The company is interested in presenting a proposal for a casino at the Flamboro Downs site, she added.

Any expansion on the site will require additional water and sewage capacity, but Partridge said the existing onsite system could be upgraded to meet additional demands. A “cost prohibitive” connection to city’s water and wastewater system wouldn’t be required, she said, alluding to the large tract of land where the Flamboro Downs sits.

Ward 4 councillor Sam Merulla was originally poised to introduce a motion last Thursday naming Flamboro Downs as the only possible site for the new casino, but when it became apparent that there wasn’t enough support from councillors to back his plan, an amended motion was put forward by the Flamborough councilors.

OLG Slots at Flamboro Downs brings in about $120 million annually. Hamilton downtown councilor Jason Farr (Ward 2) thinks that’s enough to draw private sector interest in expanding the complex.

“There has to be someone out there that’s going to look at their books and say, ‘Wow. This place makes $120 million annually,’” he told his council colleagues last week.

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