When I was a kid, my mother helped me study for spelling tests. I would memorize 30 words. Ten words would comprise the test. One of those words was cat. Every time my mother asked me how to spell cat I got it right, but she wouldn't stop there. She saw it as a teachable moment for her obdurate son. She would say, “How do you spell fat and hat or rat.” It would infuriate me. The job was to memorize 30 words, not go on some exotic spelling expedition to broaden my six-year-old self. My intransigence made my mother crazy. It never ended well. Years later, we laughed about the madness and agreed it was about control, not spelling, and that against all odds we had both grown up.
The City of Greater Sudbury council and the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce remind me of my formative years. They have no more interest in hearing any information that contradicts their storyline on a new casino for the city of Sudbury than I did in learning how to spell an extra three-letter word. They put their hands over their ears and scream, “la la la la la la la,” hoping it will all go away. It is difficult to watch.
One of the “la la la la la la” factoids the council and the chamber refuse to consider is the experience of Thunder Bay with its casino.
Royden Potvin, the general manager of Thunder Bay Ventures (a Community Futures Development Corporation), has spent the last 20 years lending money to small businesses in Thunder Bay and has a lot to say about the OLG Casino in his town. He also has many years of surveys of small business providing unique data on fact and fiction in the casino world. You can find it at thunderbayventures.com.
What follows is a shortened, edited transcript of my conversation with Royden on Nov. 4, 2017.
“Michael, I have more than observations about the casino. We've run a small business survey for 18 years. We started it prior to the casino being built. We had oversight from marketing and statistics people from Lakehead University to ensure the integrity of our data.
What we found in a nutshell is that, initially, the small business community was very optimistic about the casino and believed the sales job that Ontario Lottery Corporation provided saying it was going to make our city prosper and bring in tourists. By about 2003 the situation began to sour very badly. Lots of businesses went out of business and others lost sales, and the other social ills that come along with it started to become evident. Our survey did not deal with the social issues because that was not our mandate.
What we found, to our surprise, is that small business became dead set against the casino. It went from 80 per cent support in the very early days, before the casino was built, to 80 per cent against the casino. Our academic advisors told us this change was statistically staggering.
Early on our casino took $60 million a year out of our economy and we began to hear the anecdotal stories of business owners getting robbed by their own employees with gambling habits. Generally, it's had a very negative impact. They never held up to their end of the bargain. Started out to be 450 jobs. I believe we lost more than 450 jobs throughout the various small businesses that closed or suffered as a result of the casino. And now the casino, after 20 years, is down to about 170 jobs of total employment. With privatization here with Gateway Casinos, I can see that job loss accelerating.
It is really a tax on the community and not an economic driver. People want to have that big payday and they end up spending a lot of their money. There is certainly no economic good that will come out of this for your city, whatever the company is telling you.
We can’t even find out what their revenue is in the Thunder Bay area. We took the Ontario Lottery Corporation to arbitration to get the Thunder Bay financial statements. They wouldn't give them to us. We lost.
I hired a lawyer to guide us, and at the end of mediation the mediators told us we were right in our questioning, but they had to go by the legislation, which protects them from giving you what you want. So you never get accurate data from OLG or the private company that operates the casino for them. The city gets a cheque quarterly for supposedly five per cent of slot revenues. There is no mechanism in place for the City of Thunder Bay to audit the numbers to confirm they are being paid the correct amount.
The casino has a wider impact than the simple export of tens of millions of dollars to the province. We see suicides, we see some bankruptcies we wouldn't otherwise see, and we hear the horror stories of people who gamble away their money. If you went to the legal and accounting firms, they would tell you, or at least they tell me.”
Now, Royden doesn't have all the answers, but as a long-time businessperson and lender to small business in the second largest city in Northern Ontario for more than 20 years, you would think he might be someone you would want to talk to.
The Sudbury council has no interest. The Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce parted ways with two long-time respected board members and past chairs from their board for having the temerity to express dissenting views on the impact of a casino.
These people need to learn how to spell cat AND rat. They are not six years old. It’s time to grow up.