PAUL FORSYTH/Niagara This Week
Niagara’s regional government is pushing for the province for quick and decisive action to save the Fort Erie Race Track.
Regional council on Thursday night unanimously endorsed a call from Fort Erie Coun. John Teale to ask Ted McMeekin, Ontario’s agriculture, food and rural affairs minister, to “immediately” direct a horse racing industry transition panel to sit down with folks in Fort Erie to negotiate before Dec. 1 a plan to ensure the track’s survival.
The track’s future has been murky since the province announced earlier this year it was yanking provincial slot machines from Ontario’s horse tracks.
The $50-million transition plan designed to save as many tracks as possible would see the number of race days at Fort Erie slashed from 78 to 30, and other race dates transferred to the Ajax Downs track. Teale said that plan would doom the venerable 115-year-old Fort Erie track, slashing some 250 jobs among people whose job skills can’t really be transferred to other fields.
“The majority of horse people losing their jobs would only transfer to social assistance,” he said.
Teale said no jurisdiction in North America has horse tracks that thrive without some kind of government assistance. That means the province has to form some form of new partnership with Ontario’s horse racing industry, he said.
“Without this, the entire industry will collapse,” he said, calling for the province and the transition panel to “get off their duff and settle this.
“They’re destroying the horse racing industry in the province of Ontario, and they will destroy the Fort Erie Race Track.”
Niagara Falls Coun. Bart Maves said the writing was on the wall in terms of the province pulling its slots out of tracks, when the government began portraying slot revenues as subsidies at tracks to “renege on their business deal” to share slots revenue with tracks.
“They effectively took the slot machines out, left and slammed the door shut behind them, never for it to be open again.
“I just don’t believe that there is the will of this government to see this racetrack survive.”
St. Catharines Coun. Bruce Timms said a fundamental principle in gaming activities such as lotteries and casinos in Ontario is that they’re supposed to create a “social benefit.” You simply can’t divorce slots revenue and the fact that the loss of that revenue will result in social damage through such things as jobs lost at tracks, he said.
Welland Coun. Peter Kormos stressed it’s not just jobs at the track at stake, with spinoff jobs in related sectors such as feed, suppliers and breeders also jeopardized. More bad news is the last thing Niagara’s agricultural sector needs, he said.
“The agricultural sector in this region has been whacked,” he said. “Our agricultural industry here in Niagara has been hammered almost into oblivion.”