By Norman De Bono, The London Free Press
Thursday, March 1, 2018
For Western Fair District in London, nothing less than its very identity is at stake.
But for Gateway Casino and Entertainment, it boils down to a business model that costs a lot less.
Welcome to the hard-nosed bargaining at the table on the future of gambling in London, now locked in its 10th month with no end in sight.
Western Fair is in talks with Gateway on a new deal for its casino operation, which the B.C.-based company took over from the Ontario government’s gambling arm, with Gateway envisioning an ambitious, $140-million hotel and gambling complex on site.
Not so fast, urges Hugh Mitchell, Western Fair’s chief executive.
The fair has a long history at its east-end London site, offering special events, conferences, entertainment, agricultural events, horse racing and hockey, and wants to ensure that legacy is protected in a massive casino development.
“For us, it is our identity — our role to this region is important and we don’t want to jeopardize it,” said Mitchell. “We have trade shows, consumer shows, sports, a four-pad arena and we have horse racing 125 nights a year. We want to approach them with being bigger than just gambling. We want to make sure them being here does not conflict with our mandate.”
But Gateway has no interest in reducing other activities at the fair grounds, countered Rob Mitchell, Gateway spokesperson.
The company is paying $6.2 million a year, locked in until 2020, to lease the casino space formerly operated by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. (OLG).
That payment has to be reduced, Gateway’s Mitchell said.
“We do not want to jeopardize that heritage (at Western Fair District). We want a renewed lease agreement or to buy land. The $6.2 million annually does not make sense to us,” Gateway’s Mitchell said.
“It’s not our intent at all” to impede other events at Western Fair, he added. “We want shared amenities with the racetrack.”
Gateway also is frustrated with the pace of the talks, though there’s been recent progress, he said.
“We are aggressive in our talks with the city. We want a resolution to this,” Rob Mitchell said.
Gateway is looking hard at other sites for a new casino, he added. Buying and developing a greenfield site would require the same amount of work — environmental assessment, rezoning, site-plan application — as building at the Western Fair. “It’s no different than a new site,” he said.
Gateway, which took over provincially run gambling operations in much of Southwestern Ontario, has agreements in place in Hanover and Point Edward, near Sarnia, and others in Sudbury and Chatham are close, fuelling frustration with London, Rob Mitchell said.
“We are a private-sector company, we want to build a large, modern amenity.”
In 2017, Gateway took over the casino at Western Fair from OLG and now runs the operation. Its expansion plans include 1,200 slot machines, 46 table games and a lot more dining options.
Both Mitchells declined to detail what’s on the table, but there have been reports the grandstand would be scaled back and the Progress building demolished.
“Their frustration may be around doing straight land deals. There are a lot of moving parts here, it is complex,” Hugh Mitchell said of Gateway.
“We have a lot at stake. We are not going to just turn over property that does not complement or support our role in the community.”
There are also “thousands” of jobs at stake here in the horse-racing industry alone, he added.
Southwestern Ontario has a long tradition of horse racing, especially harness racing — an industry that supports drivers, trainers and, breeders.
“Our mission, our mandate, is as an agricultural society. I am hopeful, I am optimistic there are mutually agreeable terms,” said Hugh Mitchell.
The city makes about $4.5 million a year from its cut of slots revenue at Western Fair.
The city is scheduling public meetings to get feedback on expanded gambling in the city.