By Dianne Cornish, REVIEW STAFF
Flamborough horsemen delivered a poignant and consistent message to city councilors attending Wednesday night’s casino information forum at Waterdown District High School–they asked the eight councilors present to seriously consider whether they want a downtown casino that will create 500 jobs or the continuation of gaming operations at Flamborough Downs that will preserve an estimated 3,000 local jobs.
If council chooses to support a new casino complex in downtown Hamilton, they’ll “see the largest loss of jobs (in this area) in recent history,” said Ted Mansell, executive vice-president of Service Employees International Union local 2, which represents the 1,000 workers at Flamborough Downs. The racetrack also provides spin-off employment for another 2,000 jobs.
All are in jeopardy if council chooses the downtown as its preferred location for a new casino complex. Councillors have until the end of February to make their decision.
But it’s not just the local horse racing industry that faces extinction because of the provincial government’s cancellation of the Slots at Racetracks Program (SARP) which provided about $340 million annually to Ontario horsemen and racetrack operators, it’s the horse racing industry right across the province, said panel member Bruce Barbour, executive director of horse racing operations at Flamborough Downs and a representative of the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation (GCGC) which owns the local track as well as the one at Georgian Downs near Barrie. The SARP funding ceases on March 31 of this year.
While noting that the “GCGC is committed to horse racing at Flamborough Downs,” Barbour also warned that “horse racing (at Flamborough Downs and in Ontario) will cease to exist if there is no government (funding) support.”
A three-member panel, appointed by Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale MPP and Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs Ted McMeekin, is expected to release details of transitional funding soon but time if quickly running out for horsemen.
Area horsemen received support from about 40 members of the CasiNO Group, who staged a rally outside the high school, protesting any plans for a casino in the downtown, which they argue will cause a host of social problems for the city.
The bulk of the questions from the crowd were directed at panelist Tony Bitonti, a representative of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLGC). In response to questions from horseman Jojo Chintoh and Brian Tropea, general manager of the Ontario Harness Horse Association (OHHA), Bitonti reminded them that the Ontario government made the decision to cancel the SARP and the OLGC has a mandate to provide gaming opportunities in the province. “There was horse racing before SARP and we firmly believe there will be a horse racing industry after,” he said.
He also said it will be up to the private sector to decide if they want to rent racetrack facilities to house the new casinos.
Flamborough’s two coucillors Judi Partridge (Ward 15) and Robert Pasuta (Ward 14) said they are committed to seeing Flamborough Downs remain as a slots and horse racing centre.
The casino debate will continue tonight (Jan. 17) with another information meeting from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the Hamilton City Hall council chamber, 71 Main St. W. The meeting will be broadcast live on Cable 14 and live-streamed on the city’s website. There will also be an opportunity for residents to call in and ask questions.