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The Ontario government has announced that the controversial casino in Ajax Downs will remain open while a new casino is built in Pickering. According to the deal, Ajax Downs will be allowed to compete with a planned mega casino set to be built in neighboring Pickering. Both will operate along side the OLG lottery and online casino platform.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government announced that the two casinos, located just 7 miles from each other, will operate side-by-side. The municipalities of Ajax and Pickering have been battling bitterly for years but the agreement, which both municipalities have agreed to in principle, will allow the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation to redraw rules so that each site can offer its own gambling options.

Rod Phillips, Ontario’s Environmental minister who is the MPP for Ajax, commented, saying  “People sometimes like to have different entertainment choices. And so why couldn’t there be two facilities operating and run by the same operator?”

Different Experiences

Both the Ajax Downs casino and the Pickering casino will be operated by Vancouver-based Great Canadian Gaming Corp. The company received a contract from OLG that allows it to run facilities in the Greater Toronto Area. Great Canadian had originally announced it planned to move the casino at Ajax Downs to Pickering.

Ajax Mayor Steve Parish and Phillips argued there is room in the market for two casinos. Each one can offer a different experience, they say. The proposed Durham Live casino in Pickering is slated to include hotels and theme parks in addition to 2,700 slots and 1,000 table games. In contrast Casino Ajax, which presently has 800 slot machines, will reduce its slots offerings to 500 machines, and will continue to operate its existing quarter-horse race track.

Parish has been fighting hard for his town to keep its casino. He said that the government’s announcement was a “very positive thing” for Ajax in terms of revenue sharing and jobs. Ajax presently receives an average of $7.5-million per year from Ajax Downs. In addition, Ajax Downs is currently Ontario’s only quarter-horse racing facility and it provides 1,700 jobs in Durham region.

Parish said, “The bottom line for the government is maximizing revenue to the provincial government, and I would think that the government would be persuaded by the mix that gives the provincial government the maximum revenue.”

Positive Outcome

Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan is also satisfied.  “There’s just so much more in the Durham Live facility, I’m not concerned at all,” he said. Ryan said that he is unconcerned about possible competition and was not surprised that Ford and Phillips agreed to the compromise.

Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy was also pleased at the decision. The MPP for Pickering-Uxbridge feels that the news is positive for the entire Durham region. “It’s not a competing casino, it’s just slots … which is complementary to the slots and gaming tables at the Pickering site,” Bethlenfalvy said. The Durham Live project is expected to add 10,000 jobs to the Pickering region over time.

Rewriting Rules

Previously, the OLG mandated that only one casino could operate in the sparling suburbs east of Toronto. This is the area that includes Pickering and Ajax. The OLG originally made that agreement with Ajax Downs. Now it has released a statement that says that it has “created a new gaming zone in the GTA, as permitted under existing agreements, to accommodate the retention of slot operations at Casino Ajax.”

OLG stated that it is satisfied that the proposed deal “is commercially viable” for Ontario. The deal, when finalized, will allow Ajax Downs to keep its casino open until 2026. The Ajax casino will have then have the option to extend its license another 12 years.

No additional details of the tentative deal have been released.

Court Case

The agreement comes after years of battles between officials in Ajax and Pickering. The disagreements deteriorated into a court fight that involved a suit by Ajax to prevent Pickering from allowing a casino to operate in the town.

Ajax lost that case and was obligated to cover Pickering’s legal fees which will amount to close to $60,000. Ajax agreed to pay Pickering $30,000 and give $27,000 to Durham Live for a total payout of $57,000.

The municipality of Ajax agreed to pay the fees after Ontario’s Divisional Court dismissed Ajax’s appeal of the Ontario Municipal Board’s decision that allows Durham Live to open in Pickering.

Ajax submitted their appeal to “protect the Ajax community from significant traffic impacts and other matters associated with the new Durham Live Mega-Casino Resort”. The court fight was controversial, with many in Ajax questioning whether the town’s resources should have been spent to challenge the neighboring casino, especially since the fight seemed doomed to begin with.

But, Shaun Collier, councilor for Ajax Wards 1 and 2, says it was worth putting up a fight. “We had to defend that asset,” Collier said. “What we’re talking about is a $7-million-a-year asset to the town in revenue in the Ajax Downs, and we have to protect that.”

 Others believe that it was Ajax’s tenacity in fighting the Pickering development that forced the Ontario government to direct the OLG to rewrite the rules and make it possible for the two casinos to operate in the same region.

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