Special Report: Casino

Deconstructing PJ Mercanti's Argument For A Casino

PJ Mercanti promises to reveal "the truth" behind his quest to create a downtown casino in this month's Urbanicity. The result is disappointing.

By Adrian Duyzer
Published February 13, 2013

This month's Urbanicity featured an article by PJ Mercanti entitled, "The Truth Behind The Quest To Create An Entertainment Destination".

What an opportunity: a chance to get the hidden truth from a key player in a controversial debate with hundreds of millions at stake! Unfortunately, the truth is that "the truth behind the quest" is less than candid, less than reasonable, and much less informed than one would hope.

The article opens with a question that a family friend posed: "PJ, you have worked hard your whole life building your reputation in this city. Are you sure you want to get yourself involved with this casino discussion?" Mercanti's response is definitive: "Absolutely, I am prepared to pursue this initiative", citing two reasons: "Creating economic activity and giving back to the city that we love."

Any explanation for the Mercanti family's involvement that neglects that they stand to make millions is not a promising way to start exploring "the truth behind the quest", unless this is what Mercanti means by "economic activity".

Earning a profit is not shameful, and no one expects businesspeople to invest millions of dollars for purely altruistic reasons. Why not acknowledge that this is a multi-million dollar opportunity for the Mercanti family that also aligns with their other beliefs?

The Social Cost Discussion

The remainder of the lengthy article is split into sections, starting with this one. I'll follow the same structure and use the same titles.

Mercanti opens with a conciliatory tone: "...I would be irresponsible not to acknowledge the social costs that need to be addressed among the 1-3% of patrons with addictive tendencies." "[M]ore can be done by private sector gaming operators to create and fund dedicated addiction service programs," he writes.

However, after speaking "at large" with addiction counselors from Mission Services, Mercanti is "confident that the right type of programming can be put into place that will help to substantially mitigate the impacts of problem gambling in our community."

Is Mercanti's confidence well-founded? According to a report, "The Health Impacts of Gambling Expansion in Toronto", which is included as an addendum in the City of Hamilton report prepared by Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Health and Social Impacts of Gambling, it is not:

While there are many interventions available for problem gambling, much remains unknown about how to treat problem gambling. Only a minority of problem gamblers (1-2% per year) seeks or receives treatment. Furthermore, there is limited evidence on the effectiveness of interventions to prevent problem gambling. There is currently a need for better evidence on how to effectively mitigate the negative health and social impacts of problem gambling.

Mercanti also makes the now-familiar claim that it doesn't matter whether or not a casino is located nearby. "People will seek out gambling as a form of entertainment, no matter how near or far a facility may be."

But if that were true, why would there be any pressure at all for a downtown facility in the first place? If the casino's location is immaterial, there is no reason not to expand the one in Flamborough. In reality, all the players in the casino debate are aware that the closer the casino is to a population centre, the more gamblers - problem or otherwise - it will attract.

Mercanti does marshal some evidence in support of his position, a study that concluded that there were more problem gamblers who lived farther from the Montreal casino than who lived closer to it. The study's author is open about its limitations, which are not mentioned by Mercanti, and it contradicts most other studies on the subject, as well as the reports submitted to Hamilton and Toronto City Councils in recent months.

This doesn't stop Mercanti from using the study to make an unusual argument, namely that the presence of distant casinos, such as in Flamboro, Brantford, or Niagara Falls, actually increases the likelihood of problem gamblers in Hamilton more than a local one would. In other words, a downtown casino would reduce the number of problem gamblers in Hamilton!

Ultimately, though, Mercanti believes scientific studies on the topic are meaningless because they are "biased in favour of the personal viewpoint of the writer". Real proof "is found by asking stakeholders in the communities where gambling entertainment exists for their direct feedback".

Social And Economic Realities Of Nearby Casinos

This section can be summed up quite simply: it consists entirely of quotes from a Spectator article selected for their favourability to casinos.

In spite of the fact that numerous criticisms of casinos were levelled by people featured in that article, not a single one of these criticisms is featured, addressed, or even hinted at. Mercanti concludes by writing, "Contrary to the opinion of the opponents, it appears that casinos, in fact, do provide tremendous spinoff benefits that the entire community can enjoy."

If you hadn't read the Spectator article for yourself, you could be forgiven for believing that the people interviewed were unanimous in their support for casinos. You would be wrong. Here's just one example, a quote from Antoinette Lech, Director of the mental health department for the County of Niagara (U.S.A.):

There have been a number of crisis situations come to our attention, where people have lost in their gambling adventures, and in desperation have attempted to take their own life. We’re aware of other cases where people have gone to the casino and neglected children because they leave them in their vehicle for long periods of time unattended. Other cases with high profiles (involve) those who have embezzled from their employers ... in order to fund their gambling habit or cover their losses. We do not seem to have people presenting with gambling itself as the problem, it’s the other things that are a result of the gambling.

Follow The Money

"Another common misconception about casinos that my research uncovered," Mercanti writes, "was the theory that most of the money from a casino leaves the community."

Not so, according to Mercanti - in fact, "the exact opposite proves true in that nearly all of the money actually stays in the community, $80 million in the case of our proposal". He goes on to detail the direct and spin-off economic benefits of the casino development, including 1200 jobs, $7 million in revenue and $3 million in property taxes to the City, millions of dollars in Trillium grants, and millions in provincial health care funding.

I haven't taken the time to analyze Mercanti's numbers, but then again, no one is questioning whether or not the casino will generate revenue. Contrary to Mercanti's claim that "nearly all the money actually stays in the community", however, most of the money is funneled to the province.

Exactly what percentage of casino revenues are kept by the province is difficult to determine, but we know that gambling generated $1.958 billion in profits for the province of Ontario in 2010. Of this sum, 6.6% went to charities and non-profits, and 2.6% was spent on gambling addiction research and treatment. Another 5.6% is paid by the province to communities that host casinos.

Any analysis of local economic activity generation must determine where this money comes from. Given that the casino does not produce a product which can be sold nationally or internationally, and given that there are numerous casinos in surrounding municipalities, it is clear that most of this money will come from Hamiltonians.

A certain percentage of it is money that is already being spent in other local entertainment destinations, like restaurants, that will be spent in the casino instead. I haven't seen numbers indicating to what extent this cannibalization of local entertainment spending will take place, but an argument for the casino that doesn't address this issue is deficient.

Additionally, whenever Mercanti mentions that the casino development will include a hotel and restaurants, recall that the Mercantis already promised to build a 44-storey hotel with 440 rooms, 150 condo units, and three restaurants when they bid to take over management of the Hamilton Convention Centre - a bid they won. When the developments associated with the casino are analyzed, these developments should be subtracted since they were already promised as part of the award of another public contract.

Hamilton Is Too Classy For A Casino

Mercanti writes, "when you say no to a downtown casino you are saying no to maximizing an investment opportunity, you are saying no to significant job growth in an area of the city that desperately needs it, you are saying no to positioning yourself to attract more national conventions, and you are saying no to creating a multi-faceted entertainment district that will help to give Hamilton added character and vibrancy."

The assumptions in this statement could all bear examination (for example, when he writes of maximizing an investment opportunity, is he speaking of his own opportunity, and is it our responsibility to maximize it?), but suffice it to say that this is a gross simplification of the issue. If all these things were guaranteed true and there were no downsides, obviously the casino would garner little opposition. But they are not guaranteed to be true, and the downsides are substantial and well-documented.

Mercanti reveals his disdain for the casino's opponents, who "are satisfied with where Hamilton is," while its supporters "want to see Hamilton catapult into a world-class destination". Hamilton is poised to realize its true potential, but "serial activists" have "halted the development of major projects in this city for generations". They "fail to see what this city could be", and selfishly perceive the casino project as "competing with their own personal initiatives".

These comments, like the infamous "people who really count" comments, are as ill-advised as they are bizarre. We know that Mercanti is acting in his own self-interest to the tune of millions of dollars. But when community leaders, health professionals, pastors, city counselors, and ordinary citizens protest against a casino, what "personal initiatives" are they advancing? And what "major projects" that would be unquestionably positive for the city have been halted by "serial activists"?

Mercanti either doesn't realize or refuses to acknowledge that to many Hamiltonians, the claim that building a casino in Hamilton will transform Hamilton into a "world-class destination" is unconvincing.

Few Hamiltonians and certainly none of who have travelled to truly world-class destinations believe their hometown is in the same category as London or Paris, for example. This doesn't mean that Hamilton cannot attract visitors, and to achieve this it is helpful to have high-quality hotels and convention centres. But it does mean that we would be wise to carefully steward Hamilton's unique culture, one that is undeniably authentic, grassroots, and real, and avoid taking steps that dilute it.

Nor are Hamiltonians under any illusions about the number of people who live in poverty in our city and who suffer from mental illness, addiction and homelessness. It is not unreasonable to weigh the casino against suicides, wrecked families and destroyed finances and find the casino wanting. Those who speak against a casino on this basis do so because their conscience commands them to, not because the casino competes with their "personal initiatives"!

On the whole, Mercanti's "truth" is unconvincing. Its flawed arguments, insincere gestures of conciliation, and eventual open disdain for those with an opposing point of view disappoint where they do not offend. If an article is a mirror of its author, this one reflects someone who seeks his own personal gain and is willing to say anything to get it.

Adrian Duyzer is an entrepreneur, business owner, and Associate Editor of Raise the Hammer. He lives in downtown Hamilton with his family. On Twitter: adriandz


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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted February 13, 2013 at 09:31:55

I want to take Mr. Mercanti at his word, but everything he does reeks of naked profiteering. If he really had the interests of the city at heart, and wanted to earn the trust of casino skeptics, he would build his hotel, he would run HECFI impeccably, and he would establish a program with Mission Services to help deal with the existing problem gamblers in Hamilton.

Then, once he has demonstrated that his group is truly looking out for the wellbeing of Hamiltonians (and not just lining their pockets while others take the brunt of the social consequences), perhaps Hamiltonians would be more inclined to support his ambitious plan.

But he's got it all backwards. He wants blind support for his scheme to build a state-sanctioned bank-machine for himself, and pays only lip service to a casino's larger negative effects.

Mr. Mercanti, show us your love for the city. Build your hotel, turn HECFI into a success story, and put your money where your mouth is on supporting social programs for gamblers. Do it now, then ask for the okay to bring a potentially risky project to downtown. Give me a reason to trust you.

Comment edited by Borrelli on 2013-02-13 09:32:43

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By PattyCake (registered) | Posted February 15, 2013 at 16:25:42 in reply to Comment 86232

There is a limited window of opportunity before the OLG decides where the license to operate a casino can be placed. If its not Hamilton it could be somewhere close by and then we are left out of the equation. Mercanti realizes this and does not want Hamilton to be left in the dust. They do not want to see Hamilton losing out on this opportunity... an opportunity for this city to benefit from over a thousand jobs, increased tax revenue, increased tourism. Get your heads out of the sand and stop claiming that the sky is falling for a small minority who have a gambling problem. The families who have problem gamblers within them have to take responsibility. Call your problem gamblers out and get help for them! The community should not be held back because of problem gamblers. YES CASINO

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By Steve (registered) | Posted February 13, 2013 at 09:53:55

As funny as this will sound, despite the article's shortcomings which you highlight, Mercanti's article is a step in the right direction toward having a conversation about the pros and cons of a casino.

Previous statements made publicly by both Mercanti and Dr. Nick Bontis have been poorly formed sales pitches, trying to sell the community with disingenuous statements and dangerous misinformation.

At the end of the day it is a situation of sales vs science. It's nice to see Mercanti temper the spin, but it's troubling to see him dismiss scientific studies.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted February 13, 2013 at 11:30:48 in reply to Comment 86235

I highly disagree. You say he is tempering his spin. I say he is only spinning with more sophistication. This article shows that although the things he says sound better than 'you don't count if you oppose me', they are actually bunk. Dressing up your position in deceitful nice-ities and biased data is not a step in the right direction. His article adds nothing to the debate.

For example he says that most of the money will stay in Hamilton. Maybe if you consider all the revenue from hotel, convention center, entertainment complex and casino, the sum of all of those benefits would stay in Hamilton. But if the debate is about the pros and cons of a casino, we know that upwards of 90% of that money is going to the operator and the province. When he says 80% of the money stays in Hamilton, that is a lie. Lies do not move a debate forward, they hamstring it.

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By realfreeenterpriser (registered) | Posted February 13, 2013 at 09:58:52

Here's a good way to evaluate any proposal. If the proponent claims that it will "create jobs", it's probably not in anyone's best interests except that of the proponent. "Job creation" is always the "justification" for proposals that have no self-evident benefit. Why? For the very reason that "job creation" is an ethereal, intangible, unmeasurable "benefit". In truth, it's nothing more than a throwaway line. If all the jobs that have been predicted to be created by projects such as a casino actually came to be, we'd all have two of them. If you need proof of this, just listen to Tim Hudak. He justifies every one of his "make the rich richer" schemes with "job creation". The fallacious phrase "lower taxes create jobs" has been repeated so many times that, for some, it's become accepted wisdom witout a shred of proof.

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By Conrad664 (registered) | Posted February 14, 2013 at 05:59:48 in reply to Comment 86236

Welll do you think the flamboro casino and race has 4600 jobs ... thats 3 times more then Mercanties 1200 jobs and his entertainment project sup to be 3 times bigger then what flamboro has now or maybe 4 or 5 who nows .. lol

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By ntomkin (registered) | Posted February 13, 2013 at 10:21:44

Wow, Adrian. You nailed it on every account. I was thinking of writing something, but had some serious writer's block (admittingly, this happens often!) I am very thankful and appreciative of your stance of this issue. Thank you for taking the time to pour over these details and focus on the sheer hypocrisy.

Thursday, 1pm at City Hall is still happening, right? If so, let's make sure we show up in big numbers.

Comment edited by ntomkin on 2013-02-13 10:21:53

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By slodrive (registered) | Posted February 13, 2013 at 10:23:21

First off, while it may be unpopular, I would like to commend PJ Mercanti's passion for the city. I do believe that, while it is a profitable proposition for him, he believes it will better the community. I have lots of time for people like that -- despite my opposition to his position.

What does really bother me is the insinuation that a small group with a 'hidden agenda' are behind derailing the Casino effort. The evidence and academic opinion that present solid points against a Casino are far to logical to simply dismiss. Trivializing that is dirty pool.

Anecdotally, many of those I talk to who do support the Casino simply state, "I like to go to Casinos - this would be more convenient." After hearing the reasons why I am against it, on more than a few occasions the Casino supporters reply is simply that they haven't really given much thought to any of the negative effects.

To me, there's an insight there. To adequately debate this, one has to detach themselves from their memories of some wild bender night where they broke even at a Casino. I'm getting the sense that some are having a hard time doing that.

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By ntomkin (registered) | Posted February 13, 2013 at 10:35:04 in reply to Comment 86239

Great point. I still support and appreciate all of the Mercanti's philanthropic contributions to this community. They are quiet valuable and are not being overlooked here, at least not by me.

There are many things the Mercanti's have done that are positive, but that isn't a reason to make any assumptions about the future. Even if Mercanti believes this is a positive economic driver, it is our job as citizens to let him know that is not the case. I know you're essentially stating this, but I'd like to underscore that fact.

Comment edited by ntomkin on 2013-02-13 10:35:30

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted February 13, 2013 at 10:45:31

"On the whole, Mercanti's "truth" is unconvincing. Its flawed arguments, insincere gestures of conciliation, and eventual open disdain for those with an opposing point of view disappoint where they do not offend."

@ntomkin is right. Adrian nailed it. Wrapping a sales pitch in an unsubstantiated, simplistic, egregious and inept narrative, and adding insulting and patently false accusations does not make it compelling. In fact, it makes it offensive.

As I've said online before, I'm not anti Mercanti. But I really don't like being taken for an idiot by someone who needs to read more and speak less.

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By ntomkin (registered) | Posted February 13, 2013 at 14:54:10

The "YES" side also likes to confuse freedom of choice, so much so that they don't realize the dead end. When countered with the don't tread on me and my freedom point of view, I reply, "Alright, let's open the floodgates. Casinos everywhere and anywhere! Freedom abound!" Which is met with "Oh...so, you're worried too many casinos will saturate the market? But, what about freedom?"


I just really hate that freedom angle.

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By drb (registered) - website | Posted February 13, 2013 at 16:59:38

I believe the Carmen's/Hard Rock consortium made a critical error, from a business decision stand point, in announcing their bid intentions, appearance in front of council, and, well, everything PJ has said to the media ever since. They have mistaken the structure of the process. Right now the decisions are political: Host city - yes or no. The bids will be made to the OLG, and they will decide who wins the bids. There are many other, much larger, operators sniffing out potential host cities, quietly lobbying to determine the politicians appetites for a casino in their cities.

By making a big public announcement Rockhammer has become a local lightning rod for criticism. They can't control the debate and are reduced to a defensive position and this will negatively affect their brand. The big players are keeping their powder dry knowing that the game hasn't even started yet.

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By Anon (anonymous) | Posted February 15, 2013 at 15:37:44 in reply to Comment 86260

Had they not shaken things up like this, wouldn't a motion restricting the location to Flamborough have likely gone through?

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By z jones (registered) | Posted February 15, 2013 at 15:51:22 in reply to Comment 86375

Ya, they had nothing to lose.

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By TimetoRebuild (anonymous) | Posted February 15, 2013 at 13:00:27 in reply to Comment 86260

I absolute agree DRB, that is a thoughtful statement.

PJ and the group don't have a clue what the revenue share or yearly payments are going to be, you can assume they are drawing conclusions from the proposals that have been issued to the North and East parts of Ont. (not desireable locations) How can one propose 200 million without a definitive revenue share or ROI ?

Also, not discussed, Hamilton is part of a bundle and the operator will have to operate Brantford, Hamilton zone, Mohwak and Kitchener area. You can't run one !
4 Hard Rocks ??...now don't think so

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By Le Chiffre (anonymous) | Posted February 13, 2013 at 18:03:43 in reply to Comment 86260

Stalking horse.

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By Carloa (anonymous) | Posted February 13, 2013 at 17:22:22 in reply to Comment 86260

Assuming that Carmen's/Hark Rock and Peter Mercanti/Dr. Nick Bontis aren't inept at strategy, why do you think they convinced themselves to pursue this strategy? You share an interesting thought but it naturally raises this question. I'd be curious to know what you think.

Accidentally posted as a comment and not a reply. If a mod sees this can they delete the original?

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By drb (registered) - website | Posted February 13, 2013 at 17:37:02 in reply to Comment 86262

Errors in judgement happen all the time in business. Corporations are run by people and people make mistakes. Poor messaging can ruin campaigns before before they even start. I can only suppose: They thought that if they launched first the could gain an advantage over bidders with bigger war chests and that their local partnership aspect would win over hearts and minds and look good with the OLG. Having a strategy doesn't necessarily mean it's a good strategy if you misjudge the social environment no matter how good a business person you are. New Coke?

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By Steve (registered) | Posted February 14, 2013 at 19:10:05 in reply to Comment 86264

Could it have been that had they not gone public, and created the 'excitement' around the DT casino - jobs!, Hard Rock! - the motion to restrict it to Flamborough would have passed and then there would be limited ability to compete against GCGC for a bid at that location?

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By joejoe (anonymous) | Posted February 13, 2013 at 17:26:11

"A certain percentage of it is money that is already being spent in other local entertainment destinations, like restaurants, that will be spent in the casino instead."

The sad part about this whole proposal is that we are basically looking for ways to redistribute money from Ontarions, money that we would be spending anyways. There is no 'new' revenue here.

Even if we were to look at this proosal as an opportunity to divert money from other cities that would be a false premise because casinos will be going up all over Ontario and again, as most of the money goes to the province anyway this whole scheme is mostly pointless. In the end it comes down to: Do I spend my $60 on a meal out, or save it, or do I grab an hours worth of Black Jack?

If I buy pizza the restaurant makes money and the province and feds collect some taxes. If I drop it all on the slots, the pizza guy loses out and the government squeezes more money out of it's already income depleted citizenry. From a macro economic perspective all we're doing is nickle and diming, routing more money to government at the expense of local business owners and household savings. There is no new revenue and 'net good' to come out of this.

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By PJMercanti (anonymous) | Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:01:21 in reply to Comment 86263


Your facts are useless against me! This is for your own good, Hamilton! You should be thinking me for being so generous!


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By Carlos (anonymous) | Posted February 13, 2013 at 21:36:05

I was reading a past editorial from The Spec, dated July 5th, 2012 where Howard Elliot argues that a casino in Hamilton is "not the sort of legacy we should aspire to."

What caught my eye was the first comment that appears after the article, left on July 27 2012. The commenter was RockHammer66.

Wow, what are the chances that someone picked a handle that turned out, 6 months later, to be the name of the company attempting to bring a casino to downtown Hamilton?

Now, who would pick the suffix 66 to add to the end of a handle such as RockHammer? Probably someone who is an "Route Enthusiast 66."

Finally, who would pick a handle such as RockHammer, add the suffix 66 to it, and comment on 13 articles relating to Carmen's involvement with Hecfi or the casino?

Probably PJ Mercanti! ( see his Twitter handle: https://twitter.com/PJMercanti ).

It appears that PJ has been a busy bee, check out the profile: http://www.thespec.com/profile/rockhammer66

This is odd behavior at best.

At worst, we actually see PJ's real thoughts about the health impacts of a casino in the comment where he compares gambling addiction to his 'shopaholic sister-in-law.'

If Peter Mercanti's infamous comment "who are these people? what have they done?" was directed toward the chattering masses on Twitter, comments on blogs and online articles, and other social media outlets, well, I guess we can now answer him succinctly: Peter, these people are your children.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 16, 2013 at 10:37:53 in reply to Comment 86271

I have a feeling Mercanti is going by the handle 'Flamboroughresident' these days, with the added benefit of making it look like someone in Flamborough supports losing Flamborough Downs.

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By z jones (registered) | Posted February 16, 2013 at 10:46:58 in reply to Comment 86399

So downtown is suposed to want a casino on the recomendation of a Flamborough resident who doesn't want one? That doesn't make much sense.

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By HamiltonBoy (registered) | Posted February 14, 2013 at 17:37:47 in reply to Comment 86271

Nice detective work Carlos. I think you flushed him out...

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By RightSaidFred (registered) | Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:32:56


At the risk of a multitude of downvotes it seems most of the 'no' side seems fine with it staying in Flamboro (correct me if I am wrong), yet most of the 'no' side claims to have a higher social responsibilty to the downtrodden in the core who would be vunerable to this. To me, you can't have it both ways. If it is morally unacceptable to you then you should be voicing your opinion to close down Flamboro completely and allow NO casino anywhere within our city limits. Period. Since this doesn't seem to be the case it seems to be a case of NIMBYism dressed up as social activism to me.

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By TooSexyForMyShirt (anonymous) | Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:41:25 in reply to Comment 86291

Actually, the issue from a health perspective is proximity and access. The reason all of the city's health organizations spoke out against a downtown casino is that locating it in an urban core increases the health risks.

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By TooSexyForMyPants (anonymous) | Posted February 15, 2013 at 21:19:59 in reply to Comment 86295

I have relatives who live, literally, across the street from Flamboro Downs. They seem to be doing quite fine with a home across the street. At Christmas they told us they've made about 3 trips there since moving in almost a year ago. Does this mean that if it were downtown it would be the same? Please elaborate.

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By z jones (registered) | Posted February 16, 2013 at 08:09:00 in reply to Comment 86386

Yeah, let's ignore all the data and make up our minds based on your relatives.

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By FeckOff (anonymous) | Posted February 17, 2013 at 07:49:26 in reply to Comment 86392

You've missed the point again, as you usually do, troll.

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By Mainstreet (anonymous) | Posted February 19, 2013 at 07:31:49

WOW! One can so easily become misinformed by the local group's message of fear and calamity.The love and compassion for their fellow citizens would so heartwarming, if it werent self serving pap.A downtown casino will certainly be a gamechanger.The local low grade arts and entertainment crowd fear a quality choice of venue as opposed to what we now call culture.Those fears are well justified.May I say to those downtowners opposed to the new venue,noone has threatened the local artists handout schemes.You can still pretend at relevance and grandeuer and get your doleout from the backs of those you pretend you are sooo worried about protecting.Just keep the total cost of the arts quiet while you live off of those you supposedly care about.

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By AlHuizenga (registered) | Posted February 20, 2013 at 12:51:03 in reply to Comment 86452

I've long suspected that the No camp consists largely of local, low-grade artists and entertainers who fear that a casino will threaten their lucrative artist handout schemes and puncture their delusions of relevance and grandeur.

BTW, who provides these lucrative artist handouts, anyway? And how might one apply?

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