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Innisfil casino’s possible move could rein in horse racing

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OLG spokesperson says horse racing will return as planned in June, and it’ll continue for at least three additional years

Gateway Casino and Entertainment’s planned relocation to Cookstown could threaten the long-term viability of horse racing at Georgian Downs, the site’s operator says. 

Great Canadian Entertainment has suggested the Innisfil Heights facility may be at risk if Gateway is successful in its attempt to move south. 

“As the operator of Georgian Downs since 2005, we recognize we play an important role in the province’s horse racing industry,” Chuck Keeling, a vice-president for Great Canadian, said in an email.

“We are disappointed in Gateway’s longer term desire to potentially relocate their casino operations … our priority currently and for the short term future is the continuation of live racing at the facility. Longer term, such a relocation of Gateway’s casino operations from Georgian Downs will have a significant impact on our ability to continue horse racing at the property.”

In a stunning move, Gateway announced to Innisfil council in late April it had purchased a 25-acre parcel of land at 239 Reive Blvd., home to the former Innisfil Creek Golf Course, with plans to move its gaming operations there.

Gateway now seeks the town’s support in its request for a ministerial zoning order for the new site, to help expedite the planning process.

Rob Mitchell, a spokesperson for Gateway, says his company fully intends to proceed with relocation.

“In the event that our proposal for the new location obtains all the necessary approvals, we would not expect to enter into a new lease at our existing site,” he said. 

Gateway, which also operates Casino Rama and 30 other casinos, took over the casino at Georgian Downs in July 2018. The British Columbia-based company has been renovating or replacing dated facilities to offer more entertainment and amenity options to visitors. 

However, the move is also being made because Gateway’s lease is expiring and the company wants to remain in the community, executive vice-president Jagtar Nijjar has said.

Nijjar told councillors Gateway will work with town staff to ensure the site “satisfies all requirements,” and an “appropriate public engagement process” exists throughout the development.

“We believe in full transparency,” Nijjar said. “The more people that know about it, the more people have the opportunity to comment, the better for the process.”

Gateway will continue to lease the Georgian Downs casino space until the new facility is ready — it has a target opening date of Jan. 31, 2028, says Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) spokesperson Tony Bitoni.

“OLG is aware that Gateway has purchased land in Innisfil and that they are consulting with the town and other stakeholders on municipal requirements as it prepares a site plan approval application,” he said. “Any plans for relocating a gaming facility will be subject to municipal and provincial approvals. That said, we know from our experience … that new (or) relocated gaming sites result in significant capital investment from service providers, as well as new jobs during construction and for ongoing operations.”

The relocation would not affect the town’s revenue-sharing agreement with OLG, Bitoni said.

As well, the race season at Georgian Downs will begin as planned in June, and it’ll continue for at least three additional years.

“OLG is committed to collaborating with our industry partners to support the province’s plan for the stable and vibrant Ontario horse racing industry and the rural businesses, jobs and communities that depend on it,” Bitoni said.

“OLG has informed Ontario Racing about the potential casino relocation. They will work with the racetrack operator and the horse racing sector on plans for future race dates at Georgian Downs.”

The new site was chosen due to its location near the busy interchange at highways 400 and 89. Gateway envisions additional commercial development in the area, a plan Innisfil Creek owner Nick Torkos supports.

He says Gateway purchased about 30 per cent of the golf course property, a site his family had operated since 2004 — though Torkos recently announced the permanent closure of the course, due to the town’s ongoing South Innisfil Creek Drain reconstruction project

“The town, knowing the project for the drain and the impact on me, was instrumental in helping with the deal,” he said. “They were very supportive. This all happened in the last couple months. With the casino, I’m really hoping we’re going to make this area … the gateway into Innisfil.” 

Gateway’s land is on the northwest corner, away from the drain project. But Torkos says the casino’s interest in relocation did not influence his decision to close the course.

He does, however, see his remaining property as part of a “feature area” constructed within seven to eight years. It could be filled with complementary services like commercial businesses and entertainment. 

“If you go to (Las) Vegas, they have go-karts, other fun accessories,” Torkos said. “I’m limited on what I can do on the property … it really depends on what happens to the property after the drainage improvements; I’m going to be retaining the creek and all the waterways. We’re just getting going on this; it’s long-term planning. There’s a long road ahead.

“Make it a feature so when you enter into Innisfil that’s the first thing you see,” he added. “We would like to get something that’s a destination for the area.”

Since casino construction won’t tentatively begin until 2025 or 2026, it’ll be unaffected by the work slated to start on the creek this summer, Mitchell said. 

Mayor Lynn Dollin noted the process is in its “early days” and that she is eager to see town staff’s recommendation.

“We have time,” she said. “The racing will happen this year; it’ll go on as usual. The slots and everything that typically happens will go on. Hopefully, they’ll come up with a plan to make horse racing sustainable here in Innisfil. There’s a lot that has to be thought through. They’re independent businesses and they have to make their own decisions. Council isn’t in a position to tell a company what they should do. We’re here to support and facilitate economic growth in the community, but not to impose our will.”

— With files from Patrick Bales

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