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Howard Stutz

Next gaming frontier: Toronto? Casino companies exploring Canada's largest city

21 May 2012

Toronto and Singapore are separated by 12 hours and more than 9,300 miles.

To the gaming industry, that's where the difference ends.

Ever since Ontario government officials suggested in March that Toronto was an ideal destination for a hotel-casino complex that could generate more than $1 billion in gaming revenues, casino company executives have updated their passports and pointed their corporate jets toward Canada.

MGM Resorts International was first on the scene, hiring a Toronto-based lobbying firm and meeting with city leaders in April. Caesars Entertainment Corp. quickly followed suit and began exploring the Toronto market.

Word last week was that Las Vegas Sands Corp. also sent executives to scout the city.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, meanwhile, has requested a staff report on gaming that will explore the social and economic impacts and ideal locations for an integrated resort complex. The report is due Oct. 9.

Union Gaming Group principal Bill Lerner suggested Toronto might take its cue from Singapore.

The island nation, when it awarded gaming licenses in 2005 to Las Vegas Sands and Malaysia-based Genting, authorized the developers to focus less on the casino and offer multiple nongaming amenities, such as theaters, shops, restaurants and convention facilities.

No doubt Toronto would require the same components.

"We are still in the early innings of a casino coming to Toronto, and the debate will likely wait until the fall when the staff report is released," Lerner said.

Singapore saw casinos as a vehicle to drive tourism. The effort worked. The region attracted almost 13.2 million visitors in 2011, a 13.1 percent increase from the year before. In 2010, when Singapore's two casinos opened, visitor volume increased 20.2 percent.

Singapore is destined to become to become the world's No. 2 gaming market. Last year, the Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa combined to produce $5.42 billion in gaming revenues. Analysts predict the market will pass the Strip this year.

Apparently, the casino industry sees the same potential in Canada's biggest city.

MGM Resorts Chairman Jim Murren and Caesars Chairman Gary Loveman both made reference to Toronto as a potentially vibrant gaming market during their companies' recent quarterly earnings conference calls.

"Toronto popping up was a pleasant surprise to the industry," Murren said.

Like Singapore, Toronto draws international customers. According to Tourism Toronto, the region attracted 9.9 million visitors in 2010, of which 3.3 million came from the U.S. and other destinations, such as Latin America and Asia.

Unlike Singapore, gaming is not new in Ontario, which already operates a provincial lottery and is home to a dozen small- and midsized casinos, including Casino Niagara in Niagara Falls and Caesars Windsor, which has been operated by Caesars Entertainment since 1998.

Toronto's Woodbine racetrack casino saw $600 million in revenue from 2,750 slot machines in the latest fiscal year.

"(That) is highly suggestive of a ripe market with notable potential," Lerner said.

Toronto also has more downtown development in progress than most major U.S. markets.

Last month, billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump opened the 60-story Trump International Toronto, which has 261 hotel rooms and 118 condominiums. The 267-room Ritz-Carlton Toronto opened a year ago. The 202-room Shangri-La Hotel Toronto opens in August.

Gaming expansion in the U.S. has come to standstill. Florida shut down its gaming legalization effort for the year; Texas is on hold until 2013.

Several casino companies, including MGM Resorts and Caesars, are focused on winning one of three available gaming licenses in Massachusetts.

But Toronto could turn out to be a lucrative prize.

Several area leaders adamantly oppose gaming. Others are focusing on the potential tax dollars.

My cousin Brian Stutz, a lifelong Toronto resident, said the debate has yet to attract either widespread support or fervent opposition.

Canada's largest city has 2.5 million residents and a metropolitan population of 5.5 million. People there, for the most part, are waiting for a clearer picture on what a downtown casino might bring.

"There is not a lot of buzz of excitement right now," Brian said. "It's more of a political deal. I'd love to see it happen because any new investment into Toronto that doesn't involve tax dollars could be great for the community."