MGM Resorts eyes Exhibition Place for casino, with Mark McEwan as chef

January 22, 2013

The head of MGM Resorts International brought his pitch for a Toronto casino to Bay Street, arguing a new multimillion-dollar facility would attract one million new visitors to the city each year and inject $1-billion into local business.

MGM CEO Jim Murren stressed that the city will see this kind of positive "spillover" only with an integrated resort such as his firm is proposing, rather than a standalone casino. "What we are talking here is billions of dollars," he told a lunchtime business crowd on Tuesday. "We are talking thousands of jobs, good-paying jobs, and we've done this before and we want to do it here."

The Ontario government unveiled plans last year to revamp gaming rules, including adding as many as two casino complexes in the Toronto area, with the downtown core identified as a possible site. MGM is one of several major U.S. firms interested in bidding on a possible Toronto site.

In his speech to the Economic Club of Canada, Mr. Murren also announced an exclusive partnership with Cirque du Soleil to become a centrepiece of a new Toronto casino resort. Local celebrity chef Mark McEwan also has agreed to work with MGM to create the "dining experience" at its Toronto property, he said, and construction company PCL will be its building partner.

Mr. Murren singled out Exhibition Place as MGM's preferred site, saying a casino facility could co-exist with the annual fair and other special events such as the Molson Indy, and could be done while maintaining existing heritage buildings. Helping to revitalize the now-dormant Ontario Place could be part MGM's $2-billion to $4-billion investment, he said.

"While there are several locations in the GTA that are being considered, Exhibition Place is the one within the city that we believe offers the greatest opportunities," Mr. Murren said.

Mr. Murren's claim that the casino could co-exist with the CNE at Exhibition Place was disputed by Brian Ashton, president of the annual fair. "I'm not sure they understand," Mr. Ashton said of the MGM claim. "We don't believe we could have an 18-day fair with a complex like that sitting on the grounds."

Mr. Ashton was at city hall for a community council meeting on Tuesday and said he would have room for only "a corn-dog stand and a merry-go-round" if a casino was built at Exhibition Place.

"Please don't gamble with the CNE's future," he urged the Toronto and East York Community Council.

Mr. Ashton said the CNE is far from a freeloader, and contributes, on average, $10-million to the city each year. He said the fair creates 5,000 temporary jobs, many of which are taken by youths.

John Campbell, president and chief executive officer of Waterfront Toronto, also spoke at the meeting. Waterfront Toronto has already expressed its opposition to a casino at the Port Lands. Mr. Campbell said a casino would not be keeping with plans for a mixed-use residential community.

The city earlier this month held public meetings to gather residents' opinions on a possible casino, and the city manager is expected to report to Mayor Rob Ford's executive committee in March.

Even on a snowy, frigid January day, Mr. Murren said Toronto offers a unique opportunity because of its ability to attract foreign visitors, the many direct international flights that arrive at its airport, and its diverse population.

An MGM "integrated resort," Mr. Murren said, would offer entertainment, food and much-needed additional convention space.

"We won't do anything that people don't want us to do," Mr. Murren said when questioned on plans for the CNE site. "We would build on what is already here."

He added that MGM's plans could work at other locations. And if council rejects a casino entirely, his company is prepared to look elsewhere, he said. "If it doesn't happen here, there are other places in Ontario to go," Mr. Murren said. "If the city council votes it down, no harm, no foul. We are just going to move on to another location."

(Ads will not print)