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OLG wipes Fort Erie off the map

(Web release from May 21, 2012 edition) The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation carved out 29 geographic areas in the province where it will invite private sector operators to run casinos, and Fort Erie is not on the map.

It puts a final punctuation mark on the OLG’s decision to close the slots casino at the Fort Erie Race Track and further embitters local officials about the cynical manner with which provincial authorities have treated the community.

“They’re saying that they’re having a great big party and we’re not invited,” said Mayor Doug Martin when the announcement was made last month.

“There was no intent” to follow through on a meeting earlier this month and work cooperatively to develop a business plan for a casino at the racetrack and to support the horse racing industry in Fort Erie, Martin said.

“The die had been cast when they met with us in March to tell us they were closing the slots,” he said.

The concept of an exclusive party is illustrated in the list of what the OLG calls stakeholders it consulted to develop its strategic plan that resulted in the closure of the slots casino in Fort Erie.

The City of Niagara Falls and Falls Management Company – owner of Casino Niagara and Fallsview Resort – were consulted. So was Woodbine Entertainment and other racetrack owners, slot machine makers and international casino operators. Even the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan was consulted.

No one involved with the Fort Erie Race Track was consulted – not the Town, the Economic Development and Tourism Corporation nor the HBPA. “They met behind closed doors and came out to tell us what they decided for us,” said Martin.

Revenue from the slots funds $5.6 million a year for operations at the racetrack plus more than $3 million toward horsemen’s purses.

Although the slots were closed April 30, OLG said it will continue to fund its commitments for a year.

The focus for the racetrack is to make the best of the 2012 season and it remains up to the horsemen and fans to show up, said Jim Thibert, head of the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium that operates the track.

“We’ve had two great weekends so far. We’re up over last year,” and he hopes momentum can continue.

About $40,000 had been spent to develop a business plan for continued operation of the racetrack, Thibert said.

“They were fully aware of what they were going to do” when OLG executives met with Thibert and Martin earlier in May to discuss the proposal to take over the slots operation at the racetrack. “Nobody said maybe you should stop,” Thibert said.

“We won’t give up but time is not on our side. That’s always been the problem for us. The clock has been ticking for three years and it stops on Dec. 31,” he said.

The FELRC board will meet for its annual general meeting on June 5.

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