Return of slots to Hiawatha slow, but still going ahead

Premier Doug Ford was at Hiawatha Horse Park in November, shortly after his government announced slots would return to Sarnia. Here, he speaks with Hiawatha’s owner Jim Henderson, left, and Sarnia-Lambton MPP Bob Bailey. Cathy Dobson

Cathy Dobson

Jim Henderson has been inundated with calls from local residents hoping to land a job when Hiawatha Slots reopens at his racetrack.

But he’s telling everyone it’s going to be the end of the year before his property is leased and renovations are finished for the new 150-machine gaming facility on London Line.

“It’s been hard to get all the ducks in a row,” said Henderson. “I just received the draft lease agreement from OLG (Ontario Lottery and Gaming) and I still don’t have the final drawings.”

City council held a public meeting May 27 and voted in favour of re-establishing Hiawatha Slots. The city is expected to earn 5.25% of the first $65 million generated by the slots.

It’s been six years since the Ontario Liberals abruptly closed down Sarnia’s gaming operation, along with those in Fort Erie and Windsor.

At the time of the shutdown, Hiawatha Slots had 450 slot machines and employed 140 people.

Seven months ago, the Conservative government announced slots will return to Hiawatha, Kawartha Downs and Ajax Downs.

In early November, Premier Doug Ford was in Sarnia touring the racetrack and said he’d be back to cut the ribbon when the slots reopened.

But that won’t be until at least Christmas, said Henderson.

Once a lease agreement is signed, he has to complete capital improvements as landlord. Then Gateway Casinos and Entertainment, the company that will operate Hiawatha Slots on behalf of the OLG, will have to retrofit the space to fit their brand.

It all takes time, said Henderson, adding that he believes the lease will be for six years.

Henderson has continued to operate the racetrack after Hiawatha Slots closed and has 21 racing nights this season, held every Saturday starting in May.

But the horse racing industry took a huge hit after losing its 10% share of the revenue from slots operations. Times have been tough, according to Henderson.

Less revenue meant the purses shrunk, crowds dwindled and horsemen either left Ontario or sold their horses.

Hiawatha once attracted 2,500 to 3,000 people on race nights. Now, that’s closer to 1,000, said Henderson.

Former agreements with the original Hiawatha Slots provided 10% of the revenue to the horsemen, 10% to Henderson and about 5% to the municipality. The new arrangement does not share any revenue with the horsemen. Henderson thinks that’s wrong.

“Ontario’s horse racing industry used to be the biggest in North America and now we’re at the bottom,” he said.

Without slots revenue, horse racing at Hiawatha has not made money, according to Henderson. He said he has covered his costs with other money-makers on the property like a driving range and storage.

“But I love this industry and I’ve stuck with it,” he said.

Provincial and municipal approvals for a new slots operation have spurred new interest in his property, Henderson added.

Since the slots were announced, a hotel chain expressed interest in building at Hiawatha.

There’s no word yet on how many jobs Hiawatha Slots will create when it does open.

The OLG’s Tony Bitonti said those details haven’t been worked out.