Facing commercial competition, Great Blue Heron tribal casino owners look for better deal with Ontario government

July 5, 2023 9:15 PM
  • Mark Keast, CDC Gaming Reports
July 5, 2023 9:15 PM

Every day the brand new $1 billion Vegas-style Great Canadian Casino Resort Toronto operates, as well as the company’s shiny properties in Pickering and Ajax, they cut into the market share of the Great Blue Heron Casino & Hotel in Port Perry. In addition, Ontario’s new regulated igaming market has had an impact on the casino’s health.

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That’s according to Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation (MSIFN) Chief Kelly LaRocca. MSIFN owns the casino (opened in 1997), the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation manages it, and Great Canadian Entertainment operates it. A revenue agreement was set in 2016, in which certain expectations on the part of MSIFN were laid out.

“I’ve had major concerns around each casino opening and expansion,” LaRocca said. “It’s an existential threat for our economic driver and the community here. The community feels they were misled by the government.”

MSIFN believes the Great Blue Heron facility lacks the vibrancy of the other facilities. There are plans for a new entertainment facility at the casino for live events. The casino operator, Great Canadian Entertainment, just announced a deal with Live Nation to book bigger-name entertainers into all their casino facilities (which includes Toronto, Pickering, and Ajax), but LaRocca said she hasn’t been told about a completion date for the venue or the design particulars of the space, including the number of people it will hold. A spokesperson from Great Canadian Entertainment said they’re shooting for a fall opening.

“I’m not seeing a guarantee that the list of entertainers will be shared amongst the [Great Canadian Entertainment] facilities,” she said.

There are counter arguments. A new 100-room hotel was built and opened at GBH just a few years ago; the gaming area was expanded, with added table games, slot machines, and a sportsbook; and the plans for a 500-seat entertainment center built into the facility.

Of course, this is all personal to MSIFN. The casino represents an important economic driver with the health of community on the line. It’s so important that this summer, mediation in Toronto will involve all the parties, to see whether that 2016 agreement should be reopened, possibly to re-do the revenue-share percentages or to change the number of table games and slot machines allowed at the Great Blue Heron.

“[Our community] also has clarity in their expectations of what a mediation can bring,” LaRocca said. “You know, if parties come willingly to the table and open to all matters of possibility, then a mediation works well. If parties come to the table closed and with preconceived notions of how things ought to go, with no room for movement, then really, it’s not meaningful open discussion. So we’re just trying to be cautious with what our expectations are and willing to go the distance should we need to go to mediation.”

The opening of the Pickering casino, in particular, contravened that 2016 agreement, in terms of its proximity to the First Nation Port Perry casino, LaRocca said, adding that they were not consulted on that.

“We’d like the agreements that we entered into in 2016 to be honored. What that means is to have a protected territory that is honored by the OLG,” she said. “The way they handled Pickering and Ajax (expansion) … we will be looking for them to acknowledge it and for some kind of compensation for that.”

What she called the “cannibalization” of land-based casino operations by igaming is at the forefront of LaRocca’s concerns as well.

“We’re interested in discussing igaming and the rollout of that and the impact on gaming in our community, in our facility, and on other land-based facilities,” LaRocca said. “[If I were a land-based operator], I’d be mighty upset at the onset of igaming, especially after having poured in hundreds of millions of dollars into various land-based gaming facilities, only to turn around and have their market share scuttled. But I suspect that the service providers have been compensated for that.”

LaRocca said she has yet to visit the new casino in Toronto, but has visited the new Pickering property.