GAIL MARTIN, Independent Editor
Township residents came before Woolwich councillors on Jan.8, once again expressing their concerns about a potential casino.
The Woolwich Concerned Citizens Against Gambling, a small coalition of local residents, made a variety of presentations to councillors, in anticipation of a vote on the issue at a future council meeting.
In November, Woolwich Township heard from Ontario Lottery & Gaming on its proposal to modernize its gambling program in the province. The township is part of a newly formed "gaming zone" that will permit one large-style casino of up to 1,200 slot machines and 57 gaming tables. OLG is seeking input from local municipalities, to see if any are willing to permit having a casino of that size and scope within its boundaries. So far, the city of Cambridge has rejected the proposal, while other municipalities in the gaming zone, with the exception of Centre Wellington (which has indicated interest), have not made a decision.
At the Jan. 8 meeting, councillors heard a number of heartfelt pleas from residents opposed to the very idea of the casino.
Clint Rohr, one of the members of the coalition, told councillors that he was concerned about a proposal that would essentially “extract” money from the community.
“Will we allow for the exploitation of neighbours in neighbouring towns and communities who will bear the brunt of the harm so we may profit as a municipality?” asked Rohr.
He expressed sympathy for council's need to address the towering infrastructure deficit, but told councillors that he would rather see an increase in taxes to deal with the problem, than a casino within the township.
Coalition member Jerry Forler, who also served for many years as a member of Waterloo Region Action Group on Gambling, told councillors that gambling has become the fastest-growing addiction among young adults in Canada — the first generation of Canadians who have grown up with legalized gambling.
“The easy access of gambling venues has been proven to increase the participation of this activity,” said Forler. “Based on the government’s hunger for easy money, is it not our responsibility to provide our youth as a society with an environment in which they can make healthy, informed decisions?”
Rob Simpson, former CEO of the Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre from 2000 to 2010, highlighted his concerns over the potential for problem gambling to affect thousands within Woolwich Township.
Simpson said that approximately 5.5 per cent of slot-machine users, or one in 20, become severe problem gamblers.
He also questioned whether the revenue received from OLG, estimated at $10.5 million annually, would be worth it, in the context of this kind of negative social impact — and his estimate of $216 million that would be extracted from the local economy, and instead spent at the casino.
Mayor Todd Cowan, however, asked Simpson to explain why the casino would pose such a problem, given that gambling was already a significant part of the community, in the form of scratch lottery tickets.
“We can’t ignore the fact that it’s around us already,” said Cowan.
Simpson said that the problem with the casino was that it would introduce slot machines, the most addictive form of gambling, and would bring a much larger number of them — up to 1,200 from the current 200 at the Grand River Raceway. The proximity also makes it a problem.
“When you increase that massively, and make it more accessible, more available, then you can increase the participation,” said Simpson, who called slot machines the “crack cocaine” of gambling.
The issue will be coming back to a future council meeting, after township staff prepares a report on the proposal.
This report will include information on the results of the township’s online and postcard questionnaires that were issued in November, as well as information on the current scope of gambling in Waterloo Region, as well as the potential benefits and negative impacts of the casino, should it ultimately be approved.
After the committee-of-the-whole meeting, township CAO David Brenneman estimated that the report will come back to council by mid to late-February.
Councillors will also hear from the Region’s medical officer of health, Dr. Liana Nolan, on her take on the potential impact of the casino. In December, Nolan tabled a position paper on the health impacts of problem gambling.
Currently, there are two potential locations within Woolwich Township that could be considered for the casino, given current zoning and planning designations. One location is at the St. Jacobs Stockyards, while another is on Shantz Station Road, at Breslau.