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Poll numbers don't bode well for Toronto casino: expert

05/22/2012 08:40 EDT | Updated 07/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Toronto is an excellent location for a massive casino and entertainment complex, but it's highly unlikely any such project will proceed if current poll numbers are any indication, says a gambling industry expert.

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation is hoping to build a combined casino, hotel and entertainment complex in one of three zones in the Greater Toronto Area. One of those areas is on the waterfront, and likely sites include Ontario Place and the yet-to-be-developed Port Lands.

"In principle, knowing what I know about the demographics and the international reputation of Toronto, I have been there, I've seen the waterfront , … it's a great location," said Clyde W. Barrow, who has studied the gambling industry at the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

His comments come after the release of a poll that suggests six in 10 Torontonians want a referendum to decide whether to build a casino in the city, and that more than half of respondents oppose having one in their neighbourhood.

Survey participants were also asked about their feelings on the possibility of building a waterfront casino. Nearly one in five respondents (18.8 per cent) said they strongly support the idea, while 13.3 per cent said they somewhat support it and 19.8 per cent said they were neutral.

Almost one-third (32.5 per cent) said they strongly oppose building a waterfront casino, while 12.1 per cent indicated they somewhat oppose it. The remaining 3.5 per cent of respondents were not sure.

Winning over public a long, hard slog

"I did see the poll results you were talking about earlier, and I can tell you that it would not pass a referendum," Barrow told CBC's Matt Galloway on Metro Morning.

"I've seen many instances where public opinion polls showed 70 per cent support for a casino and it lost at the polls."

People who support casino gambling generally aren't as passionate about the issue as those opposed to the idea, Barrow said.

"The opponents tend to be much more vigourous and they show up at the polls."

Public sentiment can be turned around, he said, but that is a long-term process that requires extensive consultation with the community, study and media campaigns, Barrow said. In Massachusetts, a push to expand gaming sites only came to fruition after a 16-year process of engagement.

"So it's not something you can do in a year," he said.

The timeline in Toronto is much shorter, though, with the province hoping to solicit bid proposals by the fall.

Strategic Communications conducted the independent, automated phone poll on May 15, in which 954 city residents were surveyed about casino possibilities in Toronto.

When respondents were asked whether City Hall or voters should decide whether to build a casino in Toronto, 61.8 per cent said a referendum was the way to go, while 24.1 per cent said it should be up to the councillors.

The remaining 14.2 per cent of respondents were not sure how the issue should be decided.

About 1 in 5 support casino in their neighbourhood

The survey participants were less keen on having a casino in their own neighbourhood, with just 10.9 per cent indicating that they would strongly support such a scenario and 8.2 per cent saying they would somewhat support it. Just over 20 per cent were neutral on the issue.

However, 47.4 per cent of respondents were strongly opposed to having a casino in their neighbourhood, while 10.6 per cent were somewhat opposed. A small fraction of respondents (2.6 per cent) were not sure if they would be supportive of having a casino in their neighbourhood.

The Strategic Communications poll has a margin of error of 3.2 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

At the moment, there are no formal plans to build a casino in Toronto, though Ontario's Lottery and Gaming Corporation wants to build one somewhere in the Greater Toronto Area to increase its revenue.

However, city staff are currently studying the costs and benefits of a potential casino development, and they are due to report to the mayor’s executive committee this fall.

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