Thursday, September 27, 2012

No to downtown casinos

Ottawa's mayor Jim Watson has come out in favour of building a casino in downtown Ottawa and wants city council to get the ball rolling within a couple of weeks. Here is my letter to him and city council:

I am not against the city of Ottawa having a casino within its city limits but I am against the creation of a casino in downtown Ottawa for three reasons. A downtown casino would foster an increase in gambling, create a large facility which cuts itself off from the life of the city, and provide minimal economic benefits at best.

I believe that a government should tolerate vices but should never be in the business of promoting vice. The province of Ontario permits people to purchase cigarettes and alcohol but discourages their use through punitive taxes. The city of Vancouver created the Insite supervised injection site for users of illegal drugs because they recognize that there is a portion of their population which will use drugs regardless of laws against them. They provide a place where some of the harms associated with drug use can be alleviated. However, they do so in a clinical environment with strict rules in place that do nothing to encourage drug use. Providing outlets for gambling like the OLG Slots at Rideau Carleton Raceway are similar to Insite in that they provide a place for gamblers to go without resorting to illegal alternatives. Building a full casino in downtown Ottawa would be akin to adding mood music and comfortable couches to Insite. It encourages casual visitors and glamourizes the activity of gambling. For a casino to be successful in the city would require a large clientele. This could only be achieved through the application of marketing techniques to encourage more people to gamble than would otherwise choose to do so. This is not something that should be promoted by a responsible government.

One of the aspects of creating a successful casino that is universal is the concept of separating a casino's customers from the outside world. Any casino will be built with no windows, no clocks, and every incentive possible to keep gamblers inside the confines of the building. Unlike a football stadium where people come to the neighbourhood before a game to eat at the surrounding restaurants, watch the game, and then flood back into the neighbourhood for drinks or other activities, a casino aims to capture customers for as long as possible. There is no need to leave to get food, there is no indication that you've spent much longer than expected, there's always an ATM available in case you run out of funds. In short, a well managed casino does everything possible to ensure that its customers engage as little as possible with the city that it resides in. The ByWard Market is a wonderful place in the summer because the businesses located there each help attract customers who are then more likely to frequent the other businesses in the area. The life of our great neighbourhoods is often linked to the people who are outside walking around, moving from place to place. People watching is a wonderful thing but a casino aims to confine all of these activities in a single building that shuts itself away from all neighbouring businesses.

The economic problem with a casino extends beyond just the questionable benefits to businesses in the immediate neighbourhood surrounding the casino. The revenues from a casino derive from two potential customer types: local residents and tourists. Tourists who are looking to gamble these days have many options to choose from. There are large casinos in Montreal, southern Ontario, Connecticut, and even Gatineau. For gamblers who want the total experience, the lure of Las Vegas is always hard to resist. What exactly would cause tourists intent on gambling to choose Ottawa over any of these other venues, all of which are either closer or which will provide a far grander experience? It seems that we would be pursuing an incredibly small market. This leaves local residents who would certainly form the vast majority of casino customers. For these people there are two possibilities: spend more of their disposable income or shift their spending to a casino from another business. I assume that nobody wants Ottawans saving less money so that they can gamble so the hope would be that the Ottawa casino steals business from other entertainment businesses. For those people travelling to the Lac Leamy Casino, they would presumably also be willing to travel outside of downtown Ottawa for a similar experience. Placing a casino in downtown Ottawa just increases the likelihood that those shifted spending dollars will be stealing business away from other "night out" options in Ottawa itself rather than bringing any net benefit to Ottawa.

In conclusion, I see nothing wrong with the city of Ottawa building a full fledged casino but to reduce the harmful effects on the residents and businesses of Ottawa it must be placed well outside the city centre.

Thank you,

Grant McSheffrey

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