JOHN ROBBINS/Bullet News
QUEEN’S PARK – Ontario’s opposition Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats are applying pressure on Premier Kathleen Wynne over a government report that could spell the end of the Fort Erie Race Track.
During Question Period in the Legislature Tuesday, NDP leader Andrea Horwath accused Wynne of “playing fast and loose with the livelihoods” of horsepeople and employees at the 116-year-old border oval, the future of which has been thrown into doubt by the recent report of an expert panel recommending changes to the horse-racing industry and how best the province can spend a promised $400 million in funding.
“Well, the Premier whistle-stopped in the Falls and in Niagara-on-the-Lake last weekend, but if she would have found her way down to Fort Erie, she could have heard it straight from the horse’s mouth,” Horwath said.
“People in Fort Erie are scared of losing their jobs, their savings, their cars, their homes, their kids’ tuition, their farms, their everything.
Horwath continued: “Last Tuesday at the track, one couple squeezed my hand and looked into my eye and told me that if there’s no racing in Fort Erie next season, they’re going to lose their life’s work.
“The Liberal plan to ram private mega casinos into cities over Ontario isn’t working, and it’s causing real damage in communities like Fort Erie. Is the Premier ready to admit that she was wrong, allow the Slots at Racetracks Program to continue, and work with the Fort Erie Race Track so it can keep people working and help the Niagara economy?”
Last week, a government-appointed panel that was created the previous year to assess the sustainability of tracks in Ontario released its long-anticipated report and concluded Fort Erie is not sustainable.
The Fort Erie Race Track had inked a one-year transition funding deal with the province earlier this year, which allowed the track to open and run the 2013 season.
There’s no such money pledged for a 2014 season, meaning the track is once again in limbo.
Wynne answered Horwath, arguing the panel’s report should not be interpreted that there is no future for the Fort Erie Race Track.
“I have said repeatedly that there is the opportunity for Fort Erie to work with the (Ontario Racing Commission) to make sure that there is a future for Fort Erie, and it is up to that conversation to come up with a plan to go forward,” Wynne said.
“Our responsibility was to look at the whole horse-racing industry. My predecessor put in place a group of people who knew the industry and gave us advice, and we have now got a plan that will take us forward. There is no plan coming from the NDP in terms of how to have a transparent, sustainable horse-racing industry. We have that plan in place.
“It is going to be possible for racetracks across the province to have a future, as well as the breeders, and that means that there will continue to be jobs and there will continue to be a horse-racing industry in Ontario,” Wynne said.
Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak, who was born and raised in Fort Erie, on Monday questioned Wynne on the government’s approach, which he believes will spell the end of racing in Fort Erie.
“Premier, as you know, the Fort Erie Race Track is 116 years old. It survived two world wars. It survived the Great Depression, but it’s not going to survive the McGuinty-Wynne Liberal government,” said Hudak.
“I look at everything for what it will do to create jobs, to grow our economy. You seem to want to close down the tracks and toss people out of work. Let me be absolutely clear about this: I fought for that track. I fought to keep it open. We gave it a 10-year lease on life, and I plan to do it again.
“I hope that we’re on the same page on this, but let me test that out. Folks in Fort Erie reject this notion of a festival meet, the notion of a small-town rural fair where you drive the ponies in, you drive them out and you lose the jobs. That’s not good enough for me. It’s not good enough for the industry. It is order viagra here not good enough for the people of Niagara. Will you commit to a full racing season next year to give some life to this community and give them back their jobs?” asked Hudak.
In answering Hudak, Wynne said the previous slots-at-racetracks deal was “not sustainable” and the industry needed to take a new direction.
“The fact is that we have a plan,” said Wynne.
“It’s a five-year plan. It’s a plan that was put together by people who spent a lot of time with the industry. I agree with the Leader of the Opposition: Fort Erie should have a future. The festival plan was one option that was put forward. What I have said is that Fort Erie needs to work with (Ontario Lottery Gaming) to come up with an alternative business plan.”
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