How Sarnia won a hand but lost the game

Ontario’s latest plan to overhaul gambling in the province stirs up painful memories of what was – and what might have been – for Sarnia.

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. (OLG) said last week it will expand the sale of lottery tickets, move gambling online and close or relocate gaming facilities that are “underperforming.”

“Underperforming” is the word the government used when it closed Hiawatha Slots in 2012, even though it was generating $29 million annually.

Sarnia’s all-too-short experience with gaming began in 1997 when a private developer, RPC Anchor Gaming, won the right to develop charity casinos across Ontario.

In hindsight, it’s apparent RPC wanted the casino earmarked for this area located on the waterfront.

Sarnia offered up 12 potential sites but favoured the downtown Bayside Mall. RPC asked for five acres in Centennial Park. The city said ‘no dice.’

Early in 1998, RPC formed a partnership to build a ‘double casino” at Hiawatha Horse Park, with 80 gaming tables and 300 video lottery terminals. Residents were giddy at the prospect of 850 full-and-part-time jobs.

But, in a stunning move, RPC Anchor dropped Hiawatha and said it was working on a deal with Point Edward. The developer claimed it couldn’t wait for a provincial rezoning appeal of the horse park, set for that fall.

The about-face came three days before Sarnia was to vote on final approval for the casino. And it came just four days after Point Edward privately reaffirmed its support for a waterfront casino at a closed-door meeting.

Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley was livid. He called RPC unprofessional, fuming over the fact the city had honoured all it commitments.

Meanwhile, Point Edward celebrated. At a party at the Brittany Arms former Mayor Dick Kirkland smiled, pulled the arm on an imaginary slot machine, and said, “Ka-ching.”

Did the Point outfox Sarnia? Did Sarnia shoot itself in the foot?

Sarnia council’s go-slow approach didn’t help the city’s cause. But what’s forgotten today is the stiff opposition in the air at the time. Many Sarnians feared a casino would hurt tourism and increase policing costs. Church groups warned of crime, gambling addiction and suicide.  And it was evident the bingo industry – and the charities they support – would be hit hard.

So it was enthusiastic Point Edward that claimed the Golden Goose. In April, the village raked in another $548,000, bringing its total cut since the casino opened to $33.3 million.

Sarnia did get the consolation prize in Hiawatha Slot. The facility earned the city about $25 million before the government pulled the plug, killing 140 good jobs.

Unfortunately, Sarnia didn’t bank its money. Today, without $1 million a year in easy revenue it’s really feeling the pinch.

– George Mathewson