City, Public to Debate Western Fair Casino Expansion

Expansion to Ontario Casino at Western Fair: City wants more public input; Gateway says take it or leave it.

Debate over Ontario Casino at Western Fair DistrictFor the better part of a year, Gateway Casinos and Entertainment has been salivating over the chance to sink its teeth into the Western Fair District in London, Ontario. In December 2016, the company won a bid to take over managerial duties at the province’s north and southwest gaming bundles. The first item on their agenda – to turn the OLG’s “slots in a box” at Western Fair into a full-fledged casino.

The plans were announced in March 2017, and by June, it seemed that there was plenty of support for the plan to expand the Western Fair casino. Yet here we are, 7 months later, still awaiting a resolution from the council.

Until London submits an official ‘Yes‘, Ontario regulators cannot stamp their seal of approval on the project. As City Treasurer Anna Lisa Barbon explains, the city gets the final word. But a decision will not be made without the clear and resounding voice of the public to back it up.

“It’s entirely council’s choice whether they would choose to support it or not,” Barbon says of the expansion plans. “The intent of the council resolution (is) to ensure the public supports it and they’re not opposed to it being there.”

Potential Areas of Contention over Ontario Casino at Western Fair

In mid 2017, the main area of contention revolved around Gateway’s intention to build a hotel on the property. There was no notable opposition to increasing the number of slots and table games to 1200 and 46 respectively. Adding a throng of eateries; that’s fine, too. Creating 700 additional jobs – yes, please! But not a hotel.

Residents argued that there were plenty of hotels in London. Some are close enough to be clearly visible from the London racetrack already. Building a new hotel would only serve to draw customers away from downtown businesses.

There’s also a question of the additional property Gateway is looking to purchase to build the larger Western Fair casino. That property is currently joint-owned by the city and Western Fair. Gateway wants to negotiate a better lease deal for it, if not buy the and outright.

The propogation of problem gambling is a concern as well, especially for Coun. Jesse Helmer, whose ward includes the Western Fair. “We have to be very thoughtful ad careful,” to avoid the potentially “devastating” effects of addiction, notes Helmer.

Public Consultation for Western Fair Casino

City council is hoping to host a public consultation on the matter in March. The plan is to schedule a public open house meeting, then a public session for input.

“You have to listen carefully before you make a final decision,” says Coun. Josh Morgan. “There are pros and cons to this”.

Gateway may soon run out of patience, though. Their desire is to begin investing $140 million into the property as soon as possible. And if the plan to expand the casino at Western Fair doesn’t move ahead quickly enough, they’re threatening to take the investment elsewhere.

“We absolutely do have another site in mind,” says Rob Mitchel, Director of Communications and Public Affairs for Gateway. “If we can’t land on the London fairgrounds, we have other alternatives that we think we can execute fairly quickly.”

Not one to capitulate to surreptitious threats, the city of London is in no rush to appease the new Ontario casino corporation. Mitchell says Gateway is more than willing to participate in the public meetings to give residents “a good look” at their vision. But he’ll have to wait at least until March to get the chance.

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