David Frum

04.20.13

Two Huge Choices for Toronto's Future

Proposed development in Toronto (Oxford Properties Group) ()

My National Post column deals with the two big questions facing Toronto: a proposed casino, and whether to expand the city's airport.

The city of Toronto faces two hugely important decisions about its future — whether to build a new casino and expand the island airport in the heart of the city. I’d vote “nay” on the first and “aye” on the second.

Richard Florida has argued the case against the casino powerfully in the Huffington Post: “Virtually every serious study that has ever been done of the economic impacts of casinos shows that their costs far exceed their benefits and that they are a poor use of precious downtown land. A downtown casino will tear holes in Toronto’s urban fabric, create more costs than benefits, and as surely as if it’s holding up a giant sign, will send the message that Toronto is on the wrong track.”

I’d add another objection: Casinos have a bad way of introducing corruption into city government. Casinos are to cities as oil is to national governments: a windfall of cash that voters pay less attention to than other sources of government revenue. As Detroit learned the hard way, casinos can lead to unfavourable outcomes. According to a March 22 report in the Detroit News:

“Greektown mogul Jim Papas allegedly bribed two city officials with $20,000 worth of casino chips while pursuing pension-fund deals for himself and others worth millions, according to a federal indictment, city records and sources familiar with the investigation. The revelation sheds light on the source of payments, [which are] described as bribes that are part of an alleged conspiracy that federal prosecutors say cost Detroit pension funds more than $84-million.”

Toronto may be less vulnerable to outright fraud than the notoriously poorly governed city of Detroit. But once the casino industry gets a foothold in the city, Torontonians should certainly expect their own local version of what’s going on right now in Cedar Rapids, Iowa: “The dueling pro- and anti-casino campaigns have spent $2.2-million to date to get their messages out before Tuesday’s vote on casino gaming in Linn County.”

The so-called “anti-casino” camp in Iowa actually represents competing casinos two counties away, which are trying to shut down the competition before it opens. Casinos may begin as creatures of politics, but they end up being the paymasters of politicians. Saying “no” is a crucial prophylactic for cities that aspire to keep their politics clean.

The airport expansion proposal, on the other hand, represents an exciting investment in downtown Toronto’s future.

Read the rest at the National Post.