Comstock: Keep big-box development off waterfront

By Michael Comstock –

Tourism to Toronto is lacklustre and has been for the past decade. Yet the usual suspects continue to run the business in the same boring manner, blowing $25-$30 million a year without a useful slogan or cute T-shirt like, I Heart Toronto. It’s a wonderful city full of diverse neighbourhoods, art and intellect, but we are keeping our light under a bushel basket.

The responsibility to develop tourism has gone to an agency named the Toronto Hotel and Convention Association, made up largely of hotels and convention facilities, tour buses and boats. There are also members from businesses that realize how important tourism can be, and have no other avenue with which to work. The city doesn’t have a tourism budget, a division or even a visitor centre.

Spring has sprung officially as the double-decked tour buses have begun visiting the hop-on, hop-off bus stops. Everything in tourism leads up to the June, July, August tourism season, when families can travel together due to the school vacation schedule. The harbour tour boats, and of course the Jays games, are signs of the summer tourism season. Most of our community festivals happen then. And most of the tourists, 80%, are actually visitors staying with friends and relatives, out in our many neighbourhoods. There is a great deal to do in this city of neighbourhoods.

Toronto tour-guide service begins at home with ideas from your friends and relatives, and from Google Maps. Once you’ve left your friend’s place, you are on your own; there is no way-finding system other than the TTC Map. If you’re super lost there is your phone and the damn roaming charges!

I am “Unlimited” in my dismay about the state of tourism in this city, compared to what it could be. And now another big fix. Toronto council and mayor are turning their political minds to the permission of a casino. There are only two questions: Where would it be located? Why would we want a casino in the first place?

Do we need this new big-box business? A gambling palace is supposed to be good for tourism, and tourism is a very big and important sector of our economy. This is something that private enterprise will finance and that creates jobs. Okay, as Bill Clinton campaigned, it is “the economy, stupid.” It is jobs building it, jobs operating it (money leaving the country to a foreign owner, but I digress) and if it is a financial failure it won’t be city money lost. So, if you feel any additional business is good and either gambling is fun or gambling is a tax on the weak, then let it be built.

It doesn’t follow that the city wastes any time or finances on a casino. Nor should Tourism Toronto see this as a visit to the city. It will be a visit to a big box entertainment venue and good luck at topping Las Vegas. A casino may provide star acts that now are only seen in Niagara or Orillia, but most come to the Sony Centre or Roy Thomson anyway. This isn’t something that will imprint Toronto on a visitor and induce them to re-visit the fabulous restaurants and neighbourhoods; it won’t be a travel experience. Here is where Tourism Toronto falls down, failing to interpret the city.

In the April 18 National Post is a report about MGM and Caesars looking at a Toronto casino. Steve Gupta, president and CEO of the Easton Group of Hotels said, “We haven’t built a big attraction in Toronto since the CN Tower and how would you expect India and China tourism to come and stay here. After a day or two, there’s nothing.” I have friends and relatives who have been coming to Toronto for years and have never run out of fun things to do. Our hoteliers seem to have a complete lack of understanding about what tourists want.

I guess I can still support a casino based on the need for jobs and because it is spending other people’s money. So, if you say go ahead and build it, then the question arises, where should we put this casino?

Please, keep Ontario Place and the Ex for boating, sports, music, fireworks and family outings. Restore the annual Exhibition as an important national destination. Keep big-box development off the waterfront.

I strongly suggest that the casino would be at Woodbine Racetrack, where the mayor has already worked on major development plans. Soon the Woodbine Racetrack lands will be connected to Downtown by the rail link to Pearson Airport, due in time for the Pan Am Games. A casino at Woodbine will fill all the airport hotels. Woodbine is our thoroughbred history, racetrack gambling, Northern Dancer, The Queen’s Plate and all that. It is in the land of other big-box developments with acres of free parking! Access to the casino at Woodbine won’t overburden our already crowded Downtown streets. In fact, it will stop several buses each day winding though the city, picking up loads of “tourists” bound for Orillia and Niagara Falls.