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Gateway rolling the dice on a new site for Innisfil casino

Gateway Casinos seeking MZO to move gaming facility to Cookstown, say new casino would require an additional 200 employees if built
Innisfil council was shown this rough layout of how a casino and hotel could look on property recently purchased by Gateway Casinos for a new development near highways 89 and 400.

Gateway Casinos feels moving its Innisfil gaming facility would be a sure bet — if it can come to fruition. Gateway operates Casino Rama and many other facilities in Ontario and beyond.

But the odds of getting everything approved in time may not be in the company's favour.

Gateway has purchased a 25-acre parcel of land at 239 Reive Blvd., currently home to Innisfil Creek Golf Course, and has designs on moving its gaming operations there.

However, the standard planning process won’t accommodate the ambitious timeline Gateway has, as it hopes to have building permits taken out for construction by the end of this year.

That’s why Jagtar Nijjar, executive vice-president of Gateway Casinos and Entertainment, was on hand at Innisfil council April 24 to introduce the project and begin gaining the town’s support in its request for a ministerial zoning order (MZO).

Jamie Robinson, partner with MHBC Planning, explained why Gateway feels it's necessary to go this route. Several factors are at play, he said, including the potential to be a “major employment generator” in the community, as well as the compatibility with surrounding land uses, current permitted zoning and unique transportation perspective.

As well, he added, land approvals for many of the province’s original casinos were the result of MZOs, including the current facility at Georgian Downs.

Perhaps most important, however, is what an MZO can do to expedite the planning process.

“Gateway has some timing limitations associated with its current lease and in association with their project timelines,” Robinson said. “Going through a standard planning process — an official plan and zoning bylaw amendment — would not allow them to achieve those timelines.”

Gateway did not explicitly say when its lease expires during the presentation to council. A follow-up to Gateway following the meeting sought clarification on the timing, but a spokesperson for Gateway declined to answer, citing the confidentiality of the lease agreement.

Gateway took over the casino at Georgian Downs in July 2018. The British Columbia-based company has 31 casinos across Canada. In recent years it has been renovating or replacing dated facilities to move away from what Nijjar called a “slots in a box” approach to gaming and introduce more entertainment and amenity options.

A new, purpose-built casino in Innisfil would match these goals. However, as much as anything else, what has spurred this move is that Gateway’s lease is expiring, Nijjar said, and the organization wants to remain in the community.

The municipality wants to keep it in Innisfil, too. Mayor Lynn Dollin championed the relationship with Gateway since it came on board six years ago, and lauded the impact the more than $100 million in revenue received by the town from the casino and Ontario Lottery and Gaming (OLG) has had on the community.

“It is a very important part of Innisfil and a way to supply some things that maybe we typically couldn’t afford to give to our residents," she said. "It’s important to us to keep this opportunity within our borders.”

The new site was chosen, Robinson said, because of its proximity to the Highway 89 interchange at Highway 400, one of busiest intersections in the municipality, if not all of Simcoe County. Gateway and its planner see additional commercial development in the area’s future, making it the entry point to Innisfil for tourists, pending eventual changes to the town’s official plan.

“Currently, you see a lot of economic dollars leave the community to other areas, be it Barrie, Alliston, Bradford,” Robinson said. “We view this as the potential start of an area to keep investment dollars in ... Innisfil.”

But an official plan amendment wouldn’t be sufficient for Gateway’s proposal, council was told. For that, they needed an MZO.

One of the reasons MZOs have become so contentious in the province is that they’ve often been used to stifle public debate on contentious issues. Nijjar assured councillors Gateway will work with town staff to ensure the site “satisfies all requirements,” and an “appropriate public engagement process” exists throughout the development.

“We believe in full transparency,” Nijjar said. “The more people that know about it, the more people have the opportunity to comment, the better for the process.”

As well, Robinson said a full site plan approval process will be undertaken and no environmental exemptions are requested. A 30-metre setback from all water courses is planned, in response to questioning from Coun. Alex Waters, who suggested he had familiarity with the amount of water currently found on the golf course.

“The standard process includes substantial timelines for review, but it also has the opportunity for third-party appeals as well, which could substantially impact the timing requirements,” Robinson said.

The casino currently employs 265 people. Nijjar anticipates an additional 200 would be brought on at the new location, which would not include any hired by a potential hotel operating on-site.

While Gateway wants to move the casino a few kilometres south of its current location, its plans do not include the harness racing that fronts onto the 400 and is operated by Great Canadian Entertainment, a different gaming and entertainment vendor.

Gateway asked for the matter to be referred to town staff so a report could be created for council's review. That sentiment was enshrined in a motion passed unanimously by councillors Wednesday night.

Even if an MZO is granted, additional regulatory approvals would be required before the casino could move locations.


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