Some Hard Truths Regarding the KED, Part One

It seems like we have been arguing over the Kingsway Entertainment District forever. In truth though, Sudbury City Council only selected the Kingsway site three years ago (June 27, 2017). Since then the sheer amount of anger and vitriol spilled over this one, admittedly divisive, topic has been staggering. There are many reasons for this—money, pride, history, prejudice—but the biggest stumbling block, by far, is that none of those involved can even agree on what they are fighting about!

So, in the public interest, we’re going to break the KED down and try to address some of the project’s concerns—both for those for and against. Impartiality is to be our watchword. We here at mycapreol.com have no skin in the game and will try to remain above the pettiness that has, sadly, infected this contentious debate. That said, we are not experts in urban development, statistics, or any other related field. Ours will be a common sense approach. If we make a mistake or fail to address an issue adequately then we ask readers to inform us of any errors in the comments section.

Looking on from Capreol it seems that the proposed KED may very well be the most progressive public-private partnership in the city’s history. The project’s proponents certainly seem to think it holds a lot of promise. Of course, the KED opponents, naturally, have a different view. Namely that it is pricey, overblown, and burdened by numerous uncertainties—lack of transparency, private and political agendas, as well as cost and planning discrepancies. We at mycapreol.com would add one more tally against the project: the frustrating divide the KED is causing amongst the voters…though that blame is shared by both sides. (The detractors seem more vocal and litigious while the promoters, in general, have been reticent with sharing concrete and timely details.)

Today, in part one, our focus is strictly on the most controversial part of the Kingsway Entertainment District—the casino.

There are a number of arguments being raised against the proposed changes to the Sudbury casino. Before we address those, however, we need to establish the facts regarding our city’s current gambling status.

Sudbury is host to a number of gaming opportunities at the moment—from bingo parlours to convenience store ‘tickets’ to charity events. When most residents talk about gambling, though, they think of the city’s ‘casino’ out at the former Sudbury Downs site in Chelmsford. Limited to slot machines and a few electronic gambling devices, the current casino barely deserves the name. [Interestingly enough, the old city of Sudbury didn’t want anything to do with gambling when Ontario first legalized it. Chelmsford saw the economic opportunity and, not knowing if the project would ever turn a profit, jumped aboard. The little farming community benefitted greatly from the casino—jobs, tourism, and gambling profits all flowed into the town—at least until Sudbury, upon seeing the money being made, took over. Many locals still feel the city used underhanded tactics to steal, what amounted to millions of dollars, from Chelmsford.]

The KED would have a private company, Gateway Casinos (who won the bid for the Northern Ontario region in the provinces casino bidding process), construct a new, expanded, and custom-designed building on the Kingsway to house the city’s gambling. This casino would be located alongside a new city-funded arena, one intended to replace the current and much beloved ‘Elgin Street Barn’—home to the Sudbury Wolves. A hotel, privately funded, may also be part of the KED, alongside other potential ‘future’ developments—few of which have been confirmed.

Opponents of the new Kingsway-located casino have many arguments. Some specific to the casino and others more general. We are saving the latter for another article. The casino-specific points boil down to the following:

• Some are fighting because they, #1, they believe gambling is WRONG.
• Others are against the relocation of Sudbury’s current casino (though that name seems grandiose for what is, essentially, a slot’s hall) on the grounds that, #2, easier access will increase risk of addiction and put senior’s, in particular, at a disadvantage.
• Still others, #3, dislike the association of a public building (like the proposed arena) with a privately-run gambling concession.
• And there is another group who seem, #4, against any changes to the current casino status quo, regardless of what is proposed. Their claims range from:
o #5 the new casino won’t draw out of town dollars, merely bleed locals more;
o #6 that Sudbury doesn’t need an expanded casino; or that
o #7 a new, state-of-the-art casino, complete with discounted buffets and loss-leader special deals, will take business away from other, established businesses.

[There are, of course, more arguments. Environmental concerns, the city’s deviation from the Downtown Master Plan, the apparent lack of public input, not to mention the Kingsway location, the method of its choosing, and its being ‘dump-adjacent’. These will all be addressed in a later column.]

Answering #1 is easy. No one is proposing closing the current casino. Gambling is far too profitable for the government—at any level—to ever ban it. Not only do casinos create jobs and produce taxes but, by law, a percentage of all income must be returned to the host communities. This has meant, literally, millions of dollars for Sudbury. The simple solution for those who find gambling and casinos morally repugnant is to avoid patronizing those type of establishments.

Point #2 is a tougher argument to counter. The sad fact is that addiction is a real problem in modern society—just look to the current opioid epidemic. Friends and neighbours can suffer without anyone knowing of their struggles until it is too late. Gambling is an especially sinister form of addiction because it is so difficult to establish when going to the casino stops being ‘fun’ and begins to be a ‘problem’. And yes, seniors are more prone to developing gambling addictions. Quashing the construction of a new casino to protect the vulnerable few implies that citizens are incapable of making their own decisions and that the government has both the right and the duty to do so instead. Given the less-than-stellar performance of modern governments—municipally, provincially, or federally—no one in their right mind would dare entrust politicians with that sort of power.

This argument is rendered moot, unfortunately, by Ontario’s foray into online gaming. Unlike in real estate—where the motto is ‘Location, location, location’—gambling opportunities are readily available…from the corner store to the local Legion Hall. It is merely a matter of scale

[The ironic thing about this particular point is it directly counters the argument against moving the Sudbury Arena out of the downtown and onto the Kingsway—that the proposed location is inconvenient. So, the question then becomes: How is the KED too far for hockey fans to travel but, at the same time, too close for problem gamblers?]

Like the previous issue, #3 has a great deal of truth going for it. Locating the casino next to the proposed arena does pose a problem. It looks bad, almost like the city is endorsing gambling. One of the early designs even had the two buildings, publicly-funded arena and privately-run casino, joined by an enclosed walkway…which sends the wrong message entirely.

There are some legitimate financial reasons to build the casino next to the arena. The benefits to Gateway Casinos are obvious—sporting events draw thousands of attendees!—but what, if anything, does the city gain from the arrangement? Building costs are lowered by sharing the site, especially for shared facilities—like parking and other infrastructure. Ideally both the arena and the casino will become ‘destinations’ in their own rights—feeding off of each other in potentially lucrative crossover business. Much of this is dependent on design. Placing these two tourist-draws together means a hotel located on-site is almost assured. With those three forming the KED core other businesses should be drawn to the area…another potential win for the city.

Point #4 has, sadly, little basis in facts and everything to do with fearmongering. Arguing for the so-called ‘status quo’ only benefits a small group of special interests—all profiting from the casino’s current location. The owner of Sudbury Downs has a strong incentive to keep things as is. The same is true for local bars and restaurants. Moving the casino to a new and expanded location on the Kingsway will hurt these people, true. But the change will also benefit other people. Bars and restaurants along the Kingsway (perhaps through all of New Sudbury) will see business increase. More room means more games and that requires additional employees. In fact, Gateway Casinos, the company behind the new building, is supposedly proposing hundreds of new jobs.

As to #5, that the new casino won’t draw out-of-town patrons, this is a valid concern. The idea that tourists will flock to Sudbury just to visit the new casino is flawed. Most other cities already have casinos—many of them much bigger than what is being proposed here. What this argument fails to consider is: a) the new casino isn’t meant to lure people to the city—just provide one more entertainment option for those already visiting, and, b) that a lot of Sudbury residents currently take their gambling money out of town. When guests come to visit most of us look for things to do with them—see the sights, go out to dinner and a movie, and then…what? The new casino would be one more stop on the itinerary.

Does Sudbury even need a new casino? That’s the question #6 asks. There are two ways to answer this. First, there are approximately 200,000 residents in the Sudbury region—more than North Bay, Thunder Bay, or Sault Ste. Marie and yet each of those cities either has a full casino or is in the process of building one. If they can make their much larger casinos work, surely Sudbury can too. Second, casinos provide opportunities for more than just gambling. There will, no doubt, be a performance venue included in the new building—something smaller and more intimate than the arena but bigger than anything else in town. Some very good acts bypass Sudbury because of the current casino is lacking such a feature.

Which leads to #7 and the very real damage a casino can do to rival businesses. Higher end restaurants, especially, get hurt by the casino deals. Who can compete with the prices? Casinos can afford to almost give their food away, knowing their real profits come from diners being lured onto the gambling floor. That is, of course, sad news for the established restaurants. But isn’t protecting those businesses also harming the consumer? Sudbury residents don’t even have the option of trying the casino’s prime rib or lobster. Is depriving the many to protect the few really something the city should be involved with?

Casino opponents are not alone in raising dubious claims or red herring arguments. Some proponents are guilty of ‘muddying the waters’ too. Glossing over difficulties, ignoring inconvenient questions, and promoting ‘pie in the sky’ scenarios as certainties.

The proposed casino will not:
• #i, rejuvenate the region’s economy.
• Nor will it be, #ii, a massive shot in the arm for local tourism.
• Jobs will be created, point #iii, but probably not by the hundreds as some are projecting—at least not directly.
• And the idea that, that Sudbury somehow ‘deserves’ a state-of-the-art gambling palace, is argument #iv.

Points #i and #iii are intertwined and both are, sadly, being overblown by the proponents. Yes, putting the casino in a more central location—and, make no mistake, the Kingsway is readily accessible for the majority of Sudburians—will increase its drawing power…at least among locals. How substantial that increase will prove is debatable. A relocated and expanded casino should improve on the revenue of our current rather-modest gambling den. Adding table games alone will mean dozens of jobs. But the mouth-watering projections so often touted by those in favour of the KED are only estimates…all made to put the new casino in the best possible light.

Adding jobs to the economy is always good but relocating from the outlying region to the Kingsway means there will be job losses too…for Chelmsford specifically. The equation that matters is whether the city’s net gains balance the regional pains. Jobs are harder to come by in small towns so moving the casino is not a 1=1 proposition…at least not for those affected.

There will, no doubt, be a heavily promoted grand opening when the new casino opens its doors. That, combined with the subsequent publicity and the lure of the new, will also increase attendance…temporarily. Additional staff will be needed to cope with the initial surge, at least for the first year. What happens after that is debatable. Ideally the casinos popularity spills beyond its walls and benefits nearby businesses as well. Indirect jobs could dwarf those created by Gateway Casinos—and that would be a boon to the entire city.

Out-of-town gamblers might be tempted to visit the city’s ‘new and improved’ casino time or two to see what it’s all about and tourists in town for other reasons will, no-doubt, drop in to try their luck. But the idea that, #ii, tourists will flock into Sudbury just because of the new casino is outdated. That thinking might have been true twenty-five years ago but now most cities have casinos. The novelty has worn off and the industry has lost much of its lustre. There will be some benefit to tourism, just nowhere near what proponents are claiming.

Argument #iv, that Sudbury ‘deserves’ a top-notch casino, is laughable. The city deserves what it can support. Leaping from the current modest set-up to something suitable for the Vegas strip is foolhardy in the extreme. But, since it isn’t the taxpayer on the hook, those decisions are not Sudbury’s. Gateway Casinos will approve the final design.

No doubt there are further issues attached to the casino. Some of the biggest haven’t even arisen…yet. Other appear small right now, and are therefore easily overlooked, but problems grow and a generation from now those will loom large. There is no way to know what consequences await the city—regardless of whether the KED casino moves forward or not. Time alone tells the tale.

That doesn’t mean citizens shouldn’t engage in the project or its attendant debate. An active and informed public is essential to a healthy community. We at mycapreol.com encourage all Sudburians to research the casino and form your own opinions. Bring your concerns forward and demand answers. There are a lot of unanswered questions regarding the KED casino. Important questions like:
• What sort of wages will the casino offer?
• Will they allow employees to unionize?
• How involved in the community will Gateway Casinos be?
And less important ones, like:
• Will it be a cookie-cutter casino or will they try to individualize it for Sudbury?
• What kinds of options will it have—for gamblers, for entertainment, for dining?

Unfortunately, since this article is already too long, those questions must wait for another time.

Posted on: February 20, 2020, by :