The Eastern Ontario equine industry seems to have finally taken the lead in its struggle to maintain a profitable racing industry and the jobs it entails in the Ottawa area.
The outcome wasn’t looking so encouraging five years ago when Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and other high rollers advocated relocation downtown of the Rideau Carleton Raceway slots as a means of competing head-on with Lac Leamy Casino in Gatineau. Well-established Lac Leamy boasts 1,700 slots, some 70 gaming tables, restaurants, a 1,100-seat theatre and a Hilton Hotel.
Harness racing leaders bucked furiously at that possibility. They said removal of the slots and the revenues they garnered would decimate their industry, trampling hundreds of direct and indirect jobs providing feed, equipment, repairs and other services.
Public opinion has always favoured Rideau Carleton as the best location for gaming expansion in Ottawa, with such attributes as minimal traffic issues, free parking and plenty of room for expansion.
Later, Watson changed his mind, reassuring industry leaders that the status quo was now his preferred outcome. Then the issue went dormant… until a recent uplifting announcement from the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. and Hard Rock International which operates the restaurants and music bars with which many of us are familiar.
The $320-million partnership will ensure “survivability of this iconic sport” as part of the Rideau Carleton complex, says optimistic local Liberal MP and Ontario Infrastructure Minister Bob Chiarelli. The new operator is hoping to introduce harness racing to the younger, hipper audience it normally caters to.
The announcement follows five years of quiet speculation over the future of the facility located in Ottawa’s rural southern extremity since 1962. As a reporter and columnist who covered the Rideau Carleton struggle five years ago, I was amazed to learn of the Hard Rock deal expected to take the facility to a whole new level. Currently, Hard Rock operates 175 high-end restaurants, 24 hotels and 11 casinos across the globe.
Doug Thompson, a former Ottawa councillor whose Osgoode Ward contains Rideau Carleton, lobbied extensively to keep it intact. He’s pleased with the involvement of Hard Rock – which has partnered in other horse racing projects – and is confident the race track and barns will be revitalized as part of the Ottawa venture.
Actually, we have it right from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Rideau Carleton Director Andrew Wright has said publicly that horse racing will be “energized’ under the agreement.
Local Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod called the announcement great news for her riding which has suffered since the Liberal government ended in 2012 a program of racing sharing revenue with gambling. MacLeod expects the $320-million investment to have widespread financial repercussions across the city’s rural south end, including greater stability for “horse people.”
Over the construction period, more than 1,900 people are expected to be employed, with 2,000 permanent jobs in place following completion, compared to 800 now in place.
Under the new deal, the partners intend to create an “electrifying” Vegas-style “integrated entertainment destination” with new hotel and music venue along, 21 new gaming tables, and a slight increase to the 1,250 slot machines now in place. The city receives a contribution from the slots which, over the past five years, has amounted to about $5-million annually.
With Hard Rock to own 51 per cent, the company will take over day-to-day operations at Rideau Carleton this fall as part of a 20-year agreement. The facility will be rebranded “Hard Rock Casino Ottawa.”
Improvements will be made in phases, starting with modest renovations to the complex on Albion Road by the end of the year. The second phase will see a large expansion of entertainment options including new casino, four restaurants, and 2,000-seat live music theatre. A new entrance is planned to impart “a sense of arrival”. In the third phase to be introduced in 2019, attention will be turned to a 250-room hotel.
Attempting to cut off anti-gambling criticism early on, Hard Rock has stated it’ll be a major proponent of responsible gaming in Ottawa, integrating educational tools and other resources to help guests keep their activities “safe and fun”, providing assistance and referrals to those who need them.
Claiming to be thrilled to have been chosen by OLG, Hard Rock Chair Jim Allen called it a “crucial first step” for the brand’s expansion efforts in Ontario and throughout Canada.
It’s almost enough to persuade a fellow to take up gambling!