The Wynne Liberal government, continued their post-throne speech tour across Ontario ahead of the formal provincial budget to be held March 28th. On Friday they made a multi-year funding announcement for the Ontario horse-racing industry. They have pledged over 100 million dollars per year for 19 years, conveniently starting in 2019 after the next election. Not surprisingly, many are seeing this as a cynical attempt to buy votes by putting yet another bauble in the window.
In Niagara, it is reminiscent of the 2014 election promise to build a brand new, state-of-the-art hospital in south Niagara Falls, a promise that came complete with billboard and on-site press conference. The billboard is still there, but no hospital.
Opposition parties also point to the full-service GO transit starting in 2022 as a similar tactic to buy votes. The GO timeline is gauged to win Liberal support in the 2018 and 2022 elections. The Region of Niagara has put a team of staff in place to help move the project forward, working from a budget of 40 million dollars. The team is now tapping into funds in an attempt to force the province to keep their target date.
The Globe and Mail reported this weekend that Ontario is the most indebted sub-sovereign jurisdiction in the world. The province is currently spending over $1 billion per month on interest payments on its debt, which has doubled in just 10 years. Any hikes in interest rates imperil its financial future.
In 1998 Fort Erie MPP, and eventual Ontario PC Party leader Tim Hudak, announced the Slots at the Racetracks Program (SARP) for Ontario including the Fort Erie Racetrack. The Province, horse racing industry and track owners would split the proceeds from each ‘racino’. The program worked very well for racetrack communities by providing investment in the tracks, steady purse money for horse-racing, as well as a variety of new gaming and entertainment. The program turned racetracks into community hubs, as well as tourist and gaming destinations. It ushered in the best years in history at horse-racing tracks in Ontario.
When the provincial government changed in 2003, it came with a change in attitude towards the horse-racing industry. The 2010 to 2014 Liberal minority, supported by Andrea Howarth and the NDP, made clear a new direction for thoroughbred racing. Revenue sharing agreements were now classified as ‘provincial grants.” The Liberal government claimed the tracks couldn’t stand on their own without them. SARP, which at the time was providing $345 million per year to the industry, was shut down. Slot machines were removed from some racetracks as the government looked to consolidate the industry at fewer, larger tracks. It has been viewed by many as a way to move all thoroughbred racing to Woodbine – politically fortifying Liberal ridings in Toronto.
The political outcry was fast and furious. It forced the Liberal government to actually give ‘grants’ each year to tracks like Fort Erie. The problem now for tracks is that they are, literally, kept on pins and needles about whether the grants, and therefore horseracing altogether, will continue. Last year’s grant was $7.8 million. Fort Erie continues to limp along on the backs of a community that simply loves its racing and won’t let it die in its town. But race days are down to 40; race cards are limited to 8 races, not the 10 or 12 races per day they used to run. It’s a struggle to fill the races, and purses are so small that the horsemen can barely feed their athletes with the available winnings.
Thousands of animals have been put down, hundreds of workers have left the local racing scene for greener pastures elsewhere – or more often – have changed careers entirely. Now, on days leading up to the Provincial election, the Liberals announce a death-bed repentance with a long-term funding program.
The Liberals haven’t yet released details on how the funding program will work, but industry insiders speculate most of the funding will go to Toronto.
“Fort Erie has managed to, not only survive, but thrive against incredible odds, and it’s about time they had their voice heard,” local MPP Wayne Gates was quoted as saying. While Gates is content with the announcement of the continuation of the annual local handout, PC Party Candidate Chuck McShane is not. “The PC Party of Ontario put not one, but two, casinos in Niagara Falls and placed slots at the racetrack in Fort Erie. Those actions saw the greatest years ever of prosperity at the track. The PC’s will put the slots and additional forms of gaming, back at the track permanently.”
Current owners of the track, Ellicott Developments of Buffalo concurred with McShane. The way spokesperson Bill Paladino sees it, “The best long term solution, and the one that would see us invest heavily in the facility and new amenities, would be to return gaming to the track in a robust way.”
The operating funding the Fort Erie track receives does not address the infrastructure upgrades that are desperately needed. “There needs to be significant infrastructure improvements to clean up the track and make it as attractive as it was when I went as a child. It was a beautiful track,” said Paladino.
Paladino said his company is very much willing to invest in the track and surrounding area but they need a sprinkle of hope from the government. They have a real concern that if the Liberal government wins the next election that the track will be closed. “We believe this track is important to the area for tourism and for the community but it needs to be a partnership,” he explained. He points to the example in Buffalo where a little bit of government funding lead to a lot of private investment.