Bet on a backlash

Rexdale community pushes for benefits agreement as best defence against casino expansion

Toronto city council set for final vote on project
Photo: Bjørn Bulthuis

With one day left until the City of Toronto votes on the proposed Woodbine casino expansion, a community and labour coalition has made clear that unless it is made a signatory in a legally binding community benefits agreement, the northern Etobicoke community of Rexdale is not going to give its support to the project.

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“And without community support for an urban casino, imagine the pushback and media that’s going to be covering that community backlash,” said Kumsa Baker, campaign manager for the Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN).

“Politicians don’t want that.”

Community at the core

In 2015, Toronto City Council green-lit expanded gaming at the Woodbine Racetrack in Rexdale, an informally defined district located in the northwest of the Greater Toronto Area that has been deemed a Neighbourhood Improvement Area due to historic underinvestment in social infrastructure, low access to services, and safety issues.

At the time, 21 conditions were set, nine of which addressed community benefits — a result from sustained campaigning by Rexdale’s Community Organizing for Responsible Development (CORD), a member of the TCBN. Now, the city’s executive committee has accepted the 22-year expansion contract, which has gone to Ontario Gaming GTA LP, claiming the consortium has met all conditions.

According to a report prepared for that committee by the interim city manager, Giuliana Carbone, Ontario Gaming will add more than 3,700 jobs by 2022, the year the project is expected to be completed. The company also commits to hiring 40 per cent of employees from the local community and through local agencies, the report noted, and at least 50 per cent of them will work full-time after two years of operation. The city is also expected to receive between $26 and $31 million per year in revenue, according to estimates from the province’s Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation.

Carbone’s report concluded by suggesting that a community benefits agreement be signed between the city and Ontario Gaming — notably excluding the TCBN.

Of course, this flies in the face of the TCBN’s vision, which is to give leverage to the community itself.

A “community benefits agreement must have community at its core,” said Rosemarie Powell, TCBN executive director, in an interview before the city executive vote to accept the expansion contract. “It cannot just be negotiated between the city and the development without the community’s input.”

Councillor Mike Layton, an ardent critic of the project, also opposed the report on both ethical and financial grounds.

"Is this the right way to fund government, by preying on people's addiction?" Layton was quoted as saying by the CBC. "Most of the money that comes into casinos is from people who have a problem with gambling."

Moreover, he said, the revenue projections fall far short of previous ones, namely some made during the Rob Ford era that suggested the city could see up to $40 million per year in hosting fees.

Lowballed

According to the TCBN, Ontario Gaming is lowballing the community and the city with its jobs and revenue projections.

From 2001 to 2011 alone, for instance, more than 20,000 jobs were lost in the area, according to a CBC report last year. Just under 4,000 jobs in the next four years, as Ontario Gaming has proposed — and 5,323 total by 2025 — will not even begin to fill that gap.

That’s why Powell said the TCBN would like to see a target of at least 60 per cent local hires, including from other Neighbourhood Improvement Areas around the city. These should be permanent jobs paying a decent living wage and benefits — $18.52 without benefits, $16 with benefits. Ontario Gaming must also commit to helping local businesses thrive by way of neighbourhood and environmental improvements as well as “local procurement,” she added.

For that, the community needs new infrastructure, including bike lanes that could transport residents in and out of the casino complex as well as accessible public transit. While the company has presented a plan considering this, it only suggests a study be done in the next five to 10 years. For the TCBN, that’s just not specific or quick enough.

“We want specific targets, specific commitments,” Powell said. “Apprenticeships, professional and technical administrative jobs while the project is being built and afterwards.”

The TCBN also wants a clause in the community benefits agreement that assures the company would directly help the community by funding skill-training programs, starting endowment plans for small- to medium-sized projects, and making transfers to local mental health and addiction organizations.

“So as they continue to benefit (and) make profit from the community, they are also putting some of that money back into the community so that it creates a sustainable environment,” Baker said.

On-site, 24-hour accessible daycare is also a main concern, as lack of service access is one of the main barriers between women and gainful employment.

While the TCBN’s targets are therefore comprehensive, they are “not unreasonable,” said Powell, and no more than a reflection of the specific needs and issues affecting the community. It’s also how community benefit agreements have been framed — successfully — in other parts of the country, including Vancouver, as well as in the United States and United Kingdom.

More importantly, the targets are a result of direct community consultations led throughout 2015 by CORD in a community-needs analysis titled MyRex. The 2016 report identifies issues most affecting residents and ways in which a fair community benefits agreement signed with the developer could help revitalize the area.

“Redevelopment could spur Rexdale into a much needed revitalization and ultimately, realize a dream the community envisioned for decades,” reads the final report.

Corporate meet and greed

Late in 2017, the TCBN met with representatives from the Great Canadian Gaming corporation — one of the majority partners in the Ontario Gaming consortium — and submitted a community benefits proposal. It addressed many of the needs identified in the 2016 MyRex report as well as best practices from other Community Benefit Agreements signed across North America.

The company agreed to a follow-up meeting in December but later cancelled it. According to Powell, they claimed that substantial elements of the proposal were incompatible with their own “understanding of the legal, regulatory and financial structures that they operate within, including the legally defined roles of the city, the OLG and the province of Ontario.”

“So, for us, this was a real setback, because we had anticipated that Great Canadian Gaming would have the courtesy to actually sit down at the table and speak about our vision for the Rexdale community.”

Since then, the company has declined every invitation to meet with the TCBN and did not respond to calls for comment before press time.

The corporation has been dogged by strikes from underpaid workers and allegations of money laundering, which began in August and September of last year. In February 2018, 90 per cent of the staff at a location in British Columbia voted 99.5 per cent in favour of striking as well.

All of this has been a great source of concern for the TCBN, which is why the group believes that a legally binding agreement with hard targets and enforcement mechanisms is required for the developer to deliver on its promises.

“We want to see that these commitments are in writing and that Great Canadian Gaming will be held accountable for,” Powell said. “We don’t believe the city on its own could actually get the kinds of benefits the community is looking for.”

A catalyst

While Great Canadian Gaming has met all 21 conditions set by the city, at least according to the interim city manager’s report, Baker said what the community needs goes “above and beyond” what the company is offering and what the city is ready to accept.

What’s needed is a long-term strategy, because by any and all measures, and despite the kinds of concessions given, the casino will inevitably trigger more development in the region, Baker said. Those looming negative impacts are going to have to be matched with strong community organization and mobilization.

“What does this do for the surrounding area? It’s only a catalyst for future development and gentrification,” he said. “So it’s (about) what sort of process could we have in place to ensure that developers will continue to have those conversations with the community.”

For starters, a working group could include the City of Toronto, the developer, OLG (as regulator), the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health, the Hospitality Workers Training Centre and the community itself through the TCBN.

“If you’re going to bring a casino, the community needs to have a voice at the table throughout the drawn out process”

It would serve as a forum for dialogue for any local issues that may arise, not unlike the model the TCBN successfully brokered in 2014 between itself and the Metrolinx Eglinton Crosstown LRT project. Though that five-year agreement is not perfect, Powell said, it has bought the company Crosslinx “goodwill” with the community, which, in turn, has benefited from apprenticeships, jobs and training.

“So we know we have a long-term relationship with the community and the company. That’s what it allows us to do when we actually build trust and relationships with each other.”

The best defence

Though many in the community don’t want the casino at all, still many more feel there is “no political push or juice to say no” to it, Baker explained. Indeed, though many councillors voted against one in Toronto’s downtown before, a casino in Etobicoke is far enough removed from their constituent base that they can look the other way.

“We’re against the casino, but I think that a lot of councillors, if it’s not in their area, they don’t really care much because it doesn’t affect their residents.”

That’s why the TCBN and its partners have taken it upon themselves to lead the community-needs analysis, write the reports and, most importantly, mobilize the community itself throughout the last 10 years.

But ultimately, the targets — and a fair community benefits agreement — are the best defence the community has against a project that has been shoved through despite wide opposition.

It is, in a way, a harm-reduction approach to forced development.

“If you’re going to bring a casino, the community needs to have a voice at the table throughout the drawn out process,” Baker said. “This is not only about short-term conversations, it’s about the long-term conversation of the slow change in (the) area.”

While the TCBN is willing to play ball with the company and the city as long as the community benefits, they are ready to mobilize their masses as they have in the past. Indeed, in 2008, more than 500 community members flooded a city council meeting about the casino.

“If they just see themselves as another developer and just do what they want, and they see community and push us as nothing, as not important, we’re going to be locked with a development the community does not want,” Baker said, before quickly adding, “there are definitely opportunities to continue to push.”

“Whether we show up to the city councillors office, or city hall again with 500 people, to demand that city council needs to make this decision with the community in mind — I can’t state exactly how that’s going to play out. But if we don’t get what we view as a strong community benefits agreement, we’re not going to give support.”

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