'One voice' needed for casino, racetrack concerns

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'One voice' needed for casino, racetrack concerns
« on: August 17, 2007, 20:49:55 »
As elected officials in Fort Erie and Niagara Falls urge the province to secure the long-term future of their respective gaming sites and racetrack, area MPP Kim Craitor encourages the two communities to plead their case at Queen's Park with one voice.

"We need to get together and take our concerns to Queen's Park as one powerful, regional team," said Craitor, the day after proponents of a $300-million plan to rejuvenate the Fort Erie Race Track called on the provincial government for a commitment by month's end to ensure the town hosts live racing next year.

Slot revenue, profit margins and patrons to the track are down significantly due to issues such as increased competition from gambling parlours on both sides of the border.

To make matters worse, the Ontario Racing Commission has accelerated the deadline for horsemen to file their race dates and times for the 2008 season to Aug. 31, from October in previous years.

Mayor Doug Martin said the amount of money being generated for the horsemen is not enough to provide the number of dates necessary to make the facility attractive to horsemen for next season.

He fears the town's racing population could relocate to competing sites due to decreasing purse monies and race dates if the situation doesn't change quickly.

"That would be an unacceptable alternative," said Martin.

"The absence of live racing would be an absolute disaster for the Town of Fort Erie."

Craitor has also fielded requests from Niagara Falls city councillors recently, who are putting the heat on provincial candidates - with an election looming - to secure the long-term future of Casino Niagara.

The government is being pressured by both municipalities to reach a long-term lease agreement extension for the track and Casino Niagara, between the Ontario Lottery and Gaming corporation and the respective owners of the two sites.

Canadian Niagara Hotels owns the Casino Niagara building, while the Fort Erie Race Track is owned by Nordic gaming, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of El-Ad Group (Canada) Inc.

The OLG is the provincial agency that manages the racetrack slots in Fort Erie and the casinos in Niagara Falls.

"It would be advantageous for the town and the city to get together on a political level and have discussions with the province and say, 'Look, here is what we want, here is what we are proposing not just for the viability of our municipalities, but also for the betterment of the Niagara region as a whole,'" said Craitor.

Martin said he is prepared to "meet with anyone, anywhere, anytime, as long as we can come up with a solution.

"The problem we're seeing is that revenues have declined to the point that the cost-sharing currently in place is not sufficient enough for the owner's to pay the expenses to maintain the facility," he said.

"The horsemen are only taking back $5 or $6 million, but the province is still getting their $60 million."

In 2001, purses in Fort Erie came in at $20.1 million, while so far this year, the figures stand at $10.3 million, according to a recent report by The Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association of Ontario. The projected number for 2008 is $8.8 million. Live racing dates have dropped to 84, from 108 back in 2001.

The town and its Economic Development and Tourism Corporation have met on different occasions with representatives from Nordic gaming and El-Ad, the OLG and members of the provincial government.

Together, they discussed a proposal to build a 350-room hotel, a massive entertainment complex and a 2,500-unit timeshare/condo development on the existing racetrack property.

Project proponents have argued the company needs to change the formula for how revenues and expenses from the facility are divided before the proposal could really start to take momentum.

Jim Thibert, general manager of the EDTC, said the revenue-sharing model currently in place divides revenue between the province, which receives 70 per cent, the horsemen, which receives 10 per cent, the landowner and track, which receives 10 per cent and the town, which receives 3.5 per cent.

The Fort Erie Race Track, one of two thoroughbred horse racetracks in Ontario, opened in 1897.

The opening of provincially owned slots operations at 16 racetracks in Ontario in the late 1990s breathed new life - and injected new revenue - into the financially unstable horse-racing industry.

Jim Cronin, director of public affairs for OLG, said the 70 per cent share of revenue the province receives from slots at the facility in town is somewhat deceiving.

"Since we opened the slot facility in Fort Erie back in September 1999, over $344 million in economic benefits have gone back into the community, including the direct slot payments to the racetrack, horse people and the municipal government," he said.

Cronin said during that time frame, the OLG has paid $109-million in salaries and benefits at the site.

"A big chunk of that 70 per cent goes into operating costs. And since the slots opened in Fort Erie, the town has received over $27 million as part of the revenue-sharing model."

Cronin said the revenue-sharing model developed by the provincial government between the corporation, slots facilities and the race-horsing industry across Ontario has been drafted with a "one-size fits-all" policy to maintain a level of consistency.

Conservative MPP candidate Bart Maves questions what he called a "blanket and cookie-cutter" approach.

He said the government and the OLG need to be more flexible and "do whatever it can to make sure the Fort Erie Race Track remains open and successful.

"There is no doubt in my mind that Fort Erie is in a difficult position - they have suffered a devastating decline in revenue and every business and location is different," said Maves. "The government obviously fails to recognize that."