Chianello: Melnyk-mayor casino battle is just beginning
Rink of Dreams in question, legal action possible
The fallout from the casino war between Senators owner Eugene Melnyk and Mayor Jim Watson is only just beginning. In the past few days, Melnyk's man in Ottawa — Senators president Cyril Leeder — quit the boards of four local organizations that dealt with tourism and culture. The future of Sens Foundation's “RINC” program, which was to build 20 community outdoor skating rinks, is in question. The team's "strategic review" is to be discussed at the foundation's board meeting later this month.
Legal action by Melnyk against the city or the province might be in the works. When asked by a Toronto talk-radio host Tuesday evening if the casino issue is dead, the Sens owner replied, "You kidding? We're just getting warmed up."
This reaction shouldn't come as a surprise, least of all to the mayor and council.
For one thing, Melnyk bluntly told them that his organization would stop investing in the city if he didn't get a chance to bid on a casino. So when council approved the mayor's plan to keep the 1,250 slot machines at the Rideau Carleton Raceway instead of holding an open competition, which had been the previous plan, Melnyk made good on this promise to fight back.
While he's always stopped short of threatening to take the NHL team out of the capital - and indeed insists that he and the Senators "remain deeply committed to the community" - the aggressive comments Melnyk made on that Toronto radio show have people wondering what's next.
Now, Melnyk is not known for his measured approach. And his on-air remarks about the Rideau Carleton Raceway - that the track is in a "bad" part of town, that "it wouldn't make it at the Idaho State Fair" - were way beyond the pale.
Melnyk hasn't even been to the raceway in 15 years.
Although there are decidedly more flashy racetracks than the RCR out there in the wide world, Melnyk's snide remark that he "wouldn't go there without an army" was ridiculous.
Still, his willingness to say, well, almost anything, could be pointedly problematic for Watson who, for the first time in this term of council, finds himself face to face with a high-profile challenger for public approval.
It's true that the owners of the Lord Elgin Hotel denounced the surprise move of the Confederation Square LRT station to the Rideau Centre. But the Gillin brothers, who also offered to donate $2 million to keep the station in its originally planned location, aren't fond of the spotlight. They publicly took on the mayor only with great reluctance. When their protests went nowhere, the Gillins went back to quietly running their business.
Melnyk is a much more formidable - and dangerous - opponent. The Senators' owner is happy to shoot off his mouth, to threaten legal action, to publicly deride the mayor and city councillors. The tenor of his verbal onslaught might lead some to consider the multimillionaire nothing more than the petulant kid who takes his ball home when the game's not going his way. But as the owner of the city's most popular asset, Melnyk's criticisms will surely hold sway with some voters.
If you're Watson, that's got to worry you.
The mayor would understandably like this issue to go away. Indeed, he keeps talking about how the casino isn't a priority for him, so why can't we all move on? Sure, there are other issues that are arguably more important. Watson wasn't elected to only deliver on his campaign promises, though. As the mayor, we expect him to stickhandle his way through any serious issue that arises with transparency and professionalism.
That's not what's happening here.
Because even if you don't want gambling expanded in the city, even if you think a casino at Canadian Tire Centre is a terrible idea, even if you think Melnyk is laying it on a bit thick, the fact is the Senators owner is right in principle. For a year, he fairly understood there was going to be an open competition for a casino in Ottawa because - and this part is rather key - that's what the mayor said.
The city has been happy to accept money raised by the Sens Foundation, like the $2 million donated for the ice rink on the front lawn of city hall. That doesn't mean the city owes the Sens any special favours. Yet the hockey franchise, like any other company doing business in the city, deserves to be given a clear picture of where council is going when it makes this kind of decision.
Instead, the Sens were blindsided when, eight months after council's original pro-casino vote, the mayor announced his sudden sole support for keeping gambling at the racetrack.
It's interesting to note that, when this whole debate started last fall, Watson convinced wary councillors to quickly vote in favour of approving a tendering process for a new casino. In fact, by skipping over the sort of consultations other cities conducted, Ottawa was one of the first to toss its name into the ring for a new gambling centre.
If that way of proceeding once appeared slick and speedy, it now looks more reckless and hasty. Now Ottawa is one of the last cities in the province still grappling with the casino question.
And if Melnyk is to be believed, it's not over yet.
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