Will Niagara Falls Become The Northern Vegas?

By David South

Id Magazine (Canada), May 16-29, 1996

Niagara Falls – Niagara Falls has always been a town that attracted big dreamers with even bigger schemes. The beauty of the Falls has intoxicated many with grand ideas. Towards the turn of the century, the inventor of the Gillette safety razor, King Camp Gillette, tried to transform the American side into a Utopian paradise, planning to house most of the US population in a community of beehive-style high-rises covering an area 135 miles long and 45 miles wide.

Given the long history of grand schemes to remake both sides of Niagara Falls, it is hard not to see the hyperbole surrounding the planned casnio, slated to open by the end of the year, as another over-hyped dream. Just as Gillette spoke of untold riches, the government-owned Ontario Casino Corporation also sees Utopia ready to be born at the edge of the Falls. As provincial tourism minister Doug Saunderson said last month, “The casino and tourist development will provide Niagara with a kick start into the 21st century… I believe they will move Niagara to the very top of the list of destinations for world travellers.”

Those expectations sound even more impressive if you believe the government’s estimates for job creation. In a city of 76,000, the government projects between 3,000 and 9,000 jobs will result from the casino and its spin-offs. With numbers like that, it is hard to find many people who will say no.

Everywhere in Niagara Falls’ tourist district roads are being ripped up. Tourists from New York, Japan and Quebec tread through the clouds of gravel dust to see the Falls. But it isn’t just the government which is dreaming big for Niagara Falls.

Three dreams are fighting in this town for the hearts and souls of its residents, and depending on your perspective, have their merits. One, a scheme being championed by a group of local church leaders, is to build a wholesome theme park based around the exploits of local heroine Laura Secord during the War of 1812. Another more flamboyant scheme that has been on and off again since 1993, involves building a $1.4 billion theme park dedicated to transcendental meditation. So far, the casino is winning hands down.

The casino on its own is helping to raise another dream, phoenix-like, from the ashes. In 1979, the DiCenzo family built Maple Leaf Village as a joint shopping mall/theme park attraction. Now it sits derelict, waiting for renovations by the Buttcon construction company to turn it into the temporary site for the casino.

The run-down Maple Leaf Village, with its old-world European facade resembling a castle, became known for tacky attractions like the JFK Assassination Museum, the Elvis Presley Museum and the Nightmares Therapy Centre.

Judy MacCarthy has fought plans to build a casino since they were first discussed. She helped put together a coalition of church groups called the Try Another Way Committee. MacCarthy’s dream involves a theme park extolling the virtues of Laura Secord, whose claim to fame was snitching on the American invaders, having them ambushed by Indians near Niagara Falls.

MacCarthy says the provincial government has shown some interest in the project, even sending officials from Toronto to meet with her.

As for the more ambitious transcendental meditation theme park, it looks as if the whole project hangs on securing enough funds to get it off the ground.

In 1993, Maharishi Veda Land’s chair, the effervescent magician Doug Henning, told the media that Niagara Falls had to make up its mind: choose between the transcendental theme park, with its centre-piece floating bridge, or the moral decadence of a casino.

Three years later, what many thought to be a project even less tangible than Henning’s metaphysical musings, seems to still have some life left. Tucked away on the 13th floor of a Bay Street office tower in Toronto, Maharishi Veda Land Inc. – Enlightenment, Knowledge, Entertainment – continues to run with a handful of staff. As three office workers scatter behind closed doors, a secretary tells me the theme park is still a go, but refuses to give any more details. But MVL has told a Florida newspaper it isn’t going to build a theme park on property the company owns there.

Ted Cook, the former vice-president of PCL Eastern, the construction company Henning contracted to build the park, says there was a change in attitude: “Henning’s position softened as time passed (over the casino). He became less opposed on moral grounds, and it was now ‘maybe we can make it work’.”

If there was an epicentre to the Niagara dream machine, it is the office of its mayor, Wayne Thompson.

Dean Iorfida is the mayor’s executive assistant. For Iorfida, the casino is a matter of turning a seasonal economy dependent on summer-time tourists into a viable year-round attraction. Even when they do come to Niagara Falls, he says, the average tourist’s stay is just four hours.

Iorfida is dreaming large, imagining the permanent site will include an auditorium, convention centre and amusement park. “Vegas has gone that way,” he says.

But he also wants to see the whole city transformed by the casino. “We have to spread it around or you get a black hole effect: too much in one location.”

As for the complaints that the casino will only add to the tacky reputation of Niagara Falls, Iorfida believes “the city doesn’t want anything that turns people off, but we can’t stop private enterprise. We are talking about one location, I don’t think it will be like Vegas where casinos try to out-garish each other.”

Many associated with the traditional tourist attractions in Niagara are banking on seeing some of the casino cash. Merchants on Clifton Hill, “The street of fun at the falls,” are hoping they can complement the casino rather than compete.

So far, the tourist trap, despite the shabby strip of Clifton Hill with its wax museums and fudge shops, or even the block after block of cheap hotels and motels, has been able to avoid turning into a seedier form of sleaze – it is still a family atmosphere. In fact, the declasse’ tone of the city hides an impressive stability and prosperity that makes the residents of Niagara Falls, New York jealous. For many opposed to the casino, it is this stability that is at stake.

Overhead is the dayglo pink and turquoise marquee of the Movieland Wax Museum, where one can see wax likeness’ of such luminaries as Jim Carrey. Guy Paone, the general manager of the museum, says he is happy about the casino, hoping it will bring year-round business.

“We get families down here,”he says. “If dad wants to go to the casino, then mom and the kids can come here.”

Paone isn’t expecting any business from the die-hard gamblers though. “The hard-core gamblers didn’t come here any way. You know how it is – in Vegas some people don’t eat or sleep.”

As for some of the doom and gloom about increasing crime scaring off the family tourists, Paone doesn’t buy it. “We are pretty tight on petty crime here. I don’t think the casino will affect the family reputation.”

Paone does have a sobering thought he leaves me with, “we are the suicide capital.”

All the hope has already spawned new jobs teaching the unemployed how to gamble. Frank Cricenti, black jack course co-ordinator at the National Casino Academy, joins a growing number of people employed in the lucrative business of teaching the unemployed casino skills. According to Cricenti, casino schools “are just popping up.” At government employment centres, staff are anticipating more than 100,000 applications to flood in chasing the 3,000 jobs being offered. Such a yawning chasm between expectations and reality means times are good for the adult education business.

At the 47-room Cataract Motel, the casino is an excuse to spiff the place up. “We have painted and renovated the rooms so that they look like they’re brand new,” says the motel’s manager, who will only give his name as B. John.

Other property owners are banking on the casino rescuing them from the slump. Eva Klein of Klein Developments, wants to especially unload her pricier properties. “There has been a little bit of change in the rental market, some casino people are moving into town,” Klein tells id. “We’ve had a high vacancy of higher-end rentals in Niagara Falls and we’re expecting these to be filled by a new influx from the casino.”

For Niagara Falls, the casino looks set to turn the city into a smaller, more Canadian Las Vegas. For a city desperate for more work, that doesn’t sound too bad. For the provincial government’s travelling road show, the next stop is to move the existing Windsor casino’s management over to staff the new casino at Niagara Falls.

Casino Calamity: One Gambling Guru Thinks The Province Is Going Too Far

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CASE STUDY 3: Id Magazine | 1996 – 1997


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Casino Calamity: One Gambling Guru Thinks The Province Is Going Too Far

By David South

Id Magazine (Canada), May 16-29, 1996

Will Ontario become saturated with gambling? It is a question being asked more and more as the provincial government moves to allow unprecedented choice for gamblers.

Bars and hotels will soon have video one-armed bandits (known as video lottery terminals and slammed by the Addiction Research Foundation as video crack) and permanent charity casinos will be set up throughout the province.

Finance minister Ernie Eves’ budget may have brought joy to the hearts of the province’s gambling fanatics, but whether this is sound economic policy is less certain. Eves hopes to reap $60 million this year from the VLTs, or fruit machines.

Speaking to id under anonymity due to the sensitivity of his work, a private gambling consultant to the provincial government says the extended gambling could monkey-wrench the government’s on-going plans to build casinos to attract American tourists.

He says, “There is a maximum to any market area, to the number of people who will come. In Ontario, the idea was to have monopoly markets to create jobs and revenue for government. Spreading casinos out on the border areas would maximize jobs. But the introduction of VLT machines and permanent charity casinos means there will be a narrowing of the market. As soon as you set up the VLTs, there will be a permanent impact.”

He believes littering the province with casinos – both large and small – and VLTs, will be the equivalent of pissing in the wind for the government, arguing tourists will only be attracted to Ontario casinos if they consist of only a few, flashy must-see attractions based on the Las Vegas model.

Tourist temptation

The focus on tourists is key. Research has shown that gambling aimed at residents living near casinos can actually harm other local businesses like restaurants and movie theatres, as people spend more of their entertainment budgets on gambling. Add to this equation the fact that most of the profits go out of the community to Queen’s Park, and a casino can hurt local economies.

Knowing this, the government has instead focused on attracting tourists. In the case of the Windsor casino, it has worked – 80 per cent of gamblers there come from the US. The economic equation is simple: every dollar sucked in by the casino is a net gain for Canada that doesn’t hurt any other Canadian businesses (as for Detroit, that is anther story).

If the government keeps on its current course, Ontario could have 10 working government-owned casinos in the near future. By year’s end, the Windsor casino will be joined by Niagara Falls and the Rama First Nations casino near Orillia.

According to Anne Rappe of the government-owned Ontario Casino Corporation public outrage could change plans. “The government has been clear in its commitment to letting voters voice their view on casinos for other sites.”

Just a fad

Governments, like people, follow fads. The trend towards harder forms of gambling, like casinos and VLTs, as opposed to softer gambling like lotteries, represents a desperate move by local governments to hang on to tax revenues.

Even more than flashy schemes to build theme parks, art galleries and museums, casinos are seen as a sure-fire way to revive ailing communities by attracting tourists. Throughout North America, consultants and casino companies are telling government to turn to gambling if they hope to boost public treasuries and generate jobs. The pitch in these hard economic times goes down a treat with governments beseiged by voters to, on the one hand, reduce debt and deficits, and on the other be seen to be creating economic opportunity in the age of downsizing.

Casinos also serve another purpose. While taxes seem punitive, making money off of gamblers appears on the surface to be a win-win situation. The government gets the money it wants,while gamblers get the adrenaline rush they crave, and maybe some cash. The whole arrangement seems to be victimless – if you want to gamble, you pay the price.

For their part, gambling advocates envision Ontario as a Mecca for American gamblers chasing our low dollar, low crime, no tax casinos. They say we can have it both ways: a safe, low-crime Ontario in which islands of gambling fever suck in much-needed American dollars to prop up the provincial government treasury.

Gambling has been legal in Canada since 1969 (though the oldest casino is the gold rush-era Diamond Gerties in Dawson City, Yukon), but it wasn’t until the New Democrat government of Bob Rae that the idea of government-run or sanctioned permanent casinos became an option in Ontario.

The gambling consultant says the appeal of casinos is that they offer a sure-fire anchor to a local economy. He criticizes other developments like theme parks for being “too risky.” To make the most money, he says, casinos should avoid any pretensions to be slick, high-society affairs and instead go after the folks with “the family restaurant-style dress code.”

While the casino in Windsor is a lucrative success for the government – taking in a “win” of $500 million – local businesses have yet to report any of that money coming their way. Gambling experts say that isn’t about to change. With $400 million going directly to the government, and the rest covering expenses and the management fee paid to an American consortium running the casino, there will be little left for anyone else.

The Windsor casino is also drawing criticism for being a social parasite on Detroit, which supplies 80 per cent of the casino users. The influx of $1 million into Windsor means between 2,000 and 3,000 jobs are lost in Detroit, according to gambling expert William Thompson of the University of Nevada. Because of this, it is believed Detroit will soon set up a casino if voters say so.

A 1993 Coopers and Lybrand study commissioned by the government estimated Windsor’s win would be reduced by 60 per cent if Detroit were to open a casino.

That same study strangely found comfort in its findings that the average “pathological gambler” is male, under 30, non-Caucasian, unmarried and without a high school diploma.

It then goes on to say, “The typical US casino gaming patron earns thirty per cent more than the average of the US population, is between the ages of 40-64, is college educated and lives in a household of two or more members.” Just the kind of market that sends corporations into ecstasy.

Quebec example

The Quebec experience offers some valuable lessons for Ontario. Quebec’s three casinos were also looking to be a success until recently. The Quebec government and gambling advocates maintained the casinos (located in Montreal, Pointe-au-Pic and Ottawa’s sin-bin, Hull) were squeaky clean. Just like in Ontario, they remarked upon the impressive revenues – $1 million a day – and the huge influx of tourists. But closer scrutiny reveals the three casinos have not come without a cost.

Both Montreal and Pointe-au-Pic casinos have been criticized for preying on poor locals who spend the pittance out of their entertainment budgets on gambling. The casinos have also been involved in high-profile drug busts, money laundering scams and even murders committed by gambling addicts trying to extort money from relatives. At the Montreal casino, enterprising youth gangs targeted winners as they left the casino when it closed at three am. The robberies worked like this: A confidant would spot winners in the casino and then use a cellphone to tell accomplices waiting outside to mug the unsuspecting “lucky” ones still intoxicated by their good fortune.

All the rosy projections about casinos reviving the Ontario economy are based on several key assumptions: Americans will be the main users of the casinos, casinos in Ontario will not compete with each other or other sectors of the economy (restaurants, movie theatres, etc.), the social costs will be low and crime will not increase significantly, and most importantly, American casinos won’t lure away gamblers.

As for the gambling consultant, he doesn’t think the casinos slated to open later this year in Niagara Falls will drag the city down any farther. “Niagara Falls isn’t the nicest place now. The casino will finally give an economic reason to upgrade these places (hotels, motels and restaurants).”

And while the Niagara Falls casino will most certainly be popular, it will not be able to operate free of competition for long. Across the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls, New York, preparations are being made to open a casino by 1997.

Windsor will also face competition from the American side. Voters in the state of Michigan will be asked to vote on whether to allow casinos at the next state elections. Several groups, including a local Indian band, have been pushing for a casino to be located in downtown Detroit. Canadian casinos must also compete with river boats from Illinois and Indiana.

The government has reached a watershed in its gambling policy, leaving it with few choices. It can either allow unfettered growth in casinos as more and more communities scramble to find any means necessary to generate jobs and tax revenues, or it can recognize there is a limit to gambling as a solution to economic woes.

As the source says, “The government is in a quandry: they like the revenue but hate the way it is raised.”

Id Magazine was published in the mid to late 1990s in Canada.

Update: Story featured in Schizophrenia: A Patient’s Perspective by Abu Sayed Zahiduzzaman (Author House), 2013.