Ottawa: ‘Partner’ at your own risk

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By Steve Collins, Metro Ottawa

Using "partner" (or "impact" or "dialogue," for that matter) as a verb seems a hell of a thing to do to a perfectly good language.

The usage, though, dates back to Shakespeare, even if it hasn't grown any less barbaric over the ensuing centuries, and our city government is fond not only of the word, but the deed.

Like other Canadian municipalities, we regularly encounter a gap between our civic ambitions and our ability to pay for them, turning to other levels of government and, increasingly, to corporations to bridge it.

City council partnered with uncommon urgency last week, voting to seal the deal on redeveloping Lansdowne Park with the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group and permitting the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. to get the roulette ball rolling on a new casino here.

OSEG certainly got the friendlier reception of the two, complete with football-themed photo-ops with councillors and full credit as architects of the Lansdowne scheme.

"It wasn't the politicians that brought this vision to the table," Mayor Watson enthused. "It was our friends in the private sector that had an idea, brought it to council ...and now they're bringing this project home."

The applause and the vote were not unanimous. Coun. Diane Holmes still thinks the city should have told OSEG to go partner itself and fix up Lansdowne on its own.

"We would have received the taxes," she reminded council. "It would have been very little different in what we have here except that we would still own one of the most important pieces of land in the city on a national historic site, a wonderful piece of land that we are giving away to the private sector."

Holmes was in the minority, voting against the project along with Coun. David Chernushenko, whose constituents will actually have to live with its results in their neighbourhood, and Coun. Diane Deans, who argued taxpayers will cough up significantly more money and wait longer to see any returns on the investment than our partners in OSEG.

Still, OSEG got hugs and flowers compared to the OLG and its pitch for a casino of unspecified size, in a location to be announced, with a private-sector partner yet to be chosen. Their assurances that they won't impose a facility on a city that doesn't want it were greeted with acid skepticism.

"I do not welcome you as a friendly partner in this endeavour," Coun. Mark Taylor said. "I consider you to be an adversarial business interest that we're going to have to be very, very cautious with as we move forward in this process."

His colleagues joined in, characterizing the OLG variously as "a smiling dealer" (Coun. Chiarelli), offering "a pig in a poke" (Coun. Deans) and, perhaps most damning, possessed of "a reluctance to partner with municipalities" (Coun. Thompson).

Then they voted 19-5 to go ahead.

A creature of our indebted provincial government, OLG came to council for one reason: They're rejigging their operations in hopes of extracting an $1.3 billion annually from the province's gamblers.

The city would get a cut of the action after the province and its private partner split 90 per cent of the loot, but would also absorb externalities like traffic, noise and the social costs gambling invariably brings.

Kingston's city council, which voted to green-light an OLG casino in a 7-5 squeaker, also added the caveat that it not be located in the city's downtown core. No such conditions were attached here, although several councillors spoke against any downtown facility. The public, by and large, seems to be the silent partner in all this, consulted desultorily if at all. The majority of those who presented to the city's finance and economic development committee opposed the casino. Coun. Chernushenko estimated that of constituents he'd heard from on the matter, opinion was about 100 to 1 against.

You could hardly blame them for suspecting they're getting royally partnered.