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Mercanti calls $200M casino project ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity

By Kevin Werner • METROLAND WEST MEDIA GROUP

Hamilton’s downtown remains the prime location for a potential $200-million casino and hotel development, says P.J. Mercanti of the Carmen’s Group.

But if the city insists a new gaming facility has to remain at Flamboro Downs, the Carmen’s Group consortium partners – including Hard Rock International, LIUNA, restaurateur Dean Collett and Nick Bontis, a professor at McMaster University – will have to determine their next move.

“The finances are based on a downtown location,” Mercanti repeatedly told councillors during a Feb. 6 general issues committee meeting.  “(A Flamborough location) would potentially affect the scope and scheme of the development. It restricts the investment opportunity. It would have to be reviewed by the team. We would examine the opportunity.”

Hamilton council has twice endorsed Flamboro Downs, which is owned by the British Columbia-based Great Canadian Gaming Corporation, as its preferred location for a new gaming facility. The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation has given Hamilton until March 1 to determine whether it wants to be a willing host for a gaming facility in the downtown.

Ward 4 councillor Sam Merulla insisted that council make a “decisive decision” to make sure Flamborough is the preferred location for a gaming facility.

“Anything outside of Flamborough is not acceptable,” he said.

Mercanti said a Flamborough location poses uncertainties for their project.

“There are a lot of question marks,” said Mercanti. “It makes a lot more sense (in the downtown).”

Added Bontis: “Could Hard Rock pull out? Of course they could.”

Mercanti called the group’s $200-million project in partnership with Hard Rock International a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” Hard Rock operates casino and hotel developments world-wide, including in Orlando and Las Vegas.

“They want to add Hamilton, to this list,” noted Mercanti.

Collett, who operates the Koi and Sizzle restaurants in the Hess Village area, said he jumped into the consortium because the project surpasses any other local casino model operating today.

“This is far more exciting,” said Collett. “It’s not the Brantford model, it’s not the Niagara model.”

Mercanti said the project would create 1,200 permanent jobs, plus 700 construction jobs over two years, $10 million in taxes, $50 million in payroll and another $150 million in economic opportunities within the city. In addition, there would be a 280-room Hard Rock luxury hotel with a roof-top swimming pool, a live music lounge, a Canadian Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a comedy club.  He estimated the development could be up to 700,000 square feet.

“If you don’t like a casino, you don’t have to go to it,” he said. “You can just go to the restaurants.”

Bontis said only about 15 per cent of the development would include a casino.

“The rest is for entertainment,” he said. “It’s a private investment with zero public risk.”

Mercanti said when Hamilton residents see the development, and who is involved, a lot of people will be swayed into supporting the plan.

“A lot of the businesses are in support of extra foot traffic,” said Mercanti.  “There is a lot of support from the business community. Once they see Hard Rock is involved, there will be a change.”

He said a casino development has helped to revitalize downtowns in U.S. cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Calgary, and Melbourne, Australia.
Mercanti said if the Carmen’s Group wins the bid for the hotel and casino development, it will mean a change in how the organization will take over the Hamilton Convention Centre. Part of the Carmen’s Group bid for operating HCC was to build a 440-room hotel and condominium complex.

“We are committed to hotel developments in Hamilton,” Mercanti said.

Opponents of a downtown casino, with some holding “NO casino” signs in the gallery during the discussion, stated Hamilton is already undergoing an economic renaissance without the need for a gaming facility. They argued Hamilton’s rural community will lose 3,200 jobs when Flamboro Downs closes, dump local property rates and reduce the amount of taxes to the city.

They said Hamilton has seen the rise of a vibrant arts community, while also experiencing hotel redevelopment and a new $70 million McMaster University Health Campus.

“Would you want to live, work, buy real estate near or be within walking distance of a casino?” opponents stated in some literature distributed at the meeting.

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