Gateway Casinos is eyeing two alternative locations on Wonderland Road for its $140-million casino development, saying they’re frustrated negotiations with the Western Fair District have been taking too long.
Rob Mitchell, the company’s director of communications and public affairs, said Gateway is “currently looking” at a plot of land at Wonderland Road and Exeter Road, and a former cement plant on Wonderland Road.
“We’ve always maintained that we are going to look at a variety of locations,” he explained.
“As those sites become available, we look at them and see whether they meet our needs in terms of square footage we require, the footprint we want to build on, the kinds of amenities we want to offer, and of course parking.”
There have been a lot of obstacles to their progress at the Western Fair District, said Mitchell. He hoped construction would have already been underway, but instead, they’ve been navigating zoning bylaws, an unexpected archaeological study, and a compliance regulation with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. (OLG).
“Much of what’s frustrated us is our ability to move forward. We were told, well over a year ago, that there wouldn’t be the hurdles that we face at the fairground.”
The fairground is owned by both the Western Fair and the City of London. Ward 4 Coun. Jesse Helmer suspects Gateway is using a negotiating tactic, by suggesting it has other options.
“I think it’s easy perhaps, for a private operator to say there’s been a lot of hurdles. But everyone goes through zoning, zoning applies to everybody, and that’s just part and parcel of doing business in the city of London,” he said.
Helmer said Gateway is being treated like anyone else would be treated, if they wanted to develop a piece of land that wasn’t zoned for the particular development. He added that council is committed to a casino that’s “well done.”
“The hotel, if done properly, and expanded casino, if done properly with the increased revenue going to reduce the harms… can be a net positive for the area, but not if we compromise on things and not if we rush things along unnecessarily, and not if we go around the regular planning processes.”
Hugh Mitchell, the CEO of the Western Fair, acknowledged Gateway has hit some snags in its quest to build a new casino. But he’s always known the company would continue looking at other locations, despite progress made for a redevelopment at the Western Fair.
“We’d prefer to have them here. They’re welcome to be here, under terms and conditions that make business sense for Western Fair and the city.”
If they decide to move, Mitchell said: “That changes our business model considerably.” In particular, it would impact horse racing.
“Without having the lease in place, and the revenue stream that comes from that gaming lease which goes to support racing, it makes it difficult for racing to continue in the same format,” said the Western Fair CEO.
“We feel anxious that a deal is important to us, and we also think it’s important to them, quite frankly, because the current site generates over 100-million in gross gaming revenue for them and the province.”
Sometime next week, Mitchell said there’d be a meeting between him and the Western Fair, representatives from Gateway Casinos, and the city of London, to continue ironing things out.
Late last month, the city held a community meeting so Londoners could learn about the proposed zoning changes for the land. It’s currently cleared to allow for schools, daycares, and parking lots as well as a special provision that allows the Western Fair Association and all of its activities to be there.
An application asks for zoning changes that would permit specific recreational and entertainment uses such as hotels, restaurants, retail, craft brewers and amusement parks.
In December 2017, Gateway unveiled plans to build its “premium brand” casino at the Western Fair, with a 125-room hotel, a new gaming floor, and four restaurants, which officials said would bring 700 new jobs to the city. The company said it’s still committed to the project.
“We are going to build a casino in the city of London,” said Rob Mitchell.
“It’s just a question of where.”