Gateway’s Decision To Stay At Western Fair A Boon To Ontario Horse Racing

Written By Dave Briggs on November 10, 2022 - Last Updated on November 14, 2022
Gateway has reversed its decision to build a new casino in London, Ontario. It will remain at the Western Fair and expand operations.

Ontario’s horse racing industry is a huge benefactor from Gateway Casinos and Entertainment’s decision to sign a long-term lease to keep its Ontario casino at the Western Fair Association in London, ON.

The long-rumoured deal, reported Wednesday by CTV News London, reverses Gateway’s 2018 decision to pull out of the Western Fair and build a new $75 million casino in the southwest corner of the city.

Rob Mitchell, the director of communications and public affairs for Gateway, told PlayCanada:

“We are very pleased to have reached a new long-term lease agreement with the (Western) Fair District that we believe will be beneficial to all parties, the Fair, the City of London and our loyal customers and the new patrons we hope to engage with a bright modern entertainment destination that will offer a variety of amenities and food and beverage options in addition to a greatly expanded gaming experience.”

Cause for celebration for Ontario horse racing

Gateway’s initial decision to leave was partly motivated by it balking at a $6 million annual lease deal it signed with Western Fair. That deal, in part, supports live harness racing that has operated on the site since 1961.

That makes this week’s news that Gateway is staying put cause for celebration for the horse racing industry. Greg Blanchard, the director of sales and retail operations at Western Fair told PlayCanada:

“Western Fair Association continues to play a critical role in the province’s racing industry, operating the second highest wagering harness track and Ontario’s largest annual yearling sale.”

Blanchard also is the sale manager of the London Classic Yearling Sale. The auction sold over $6.6 million worth of standardbred horses in October at the Western Fair’s Agriplex facility.

“This news provides the stability to continue development of racing and entertainment which will complement gaming at the site and allows us to continue the commitment to our agri-food strategy. It all ties in together and we look forward to building on our strong relationship with Gateway.”

From Western Fair to Starlight and back again

Gateway has been operating the gaming facility at Western Fair since 2017.

Initially, it planned to spend $140 million to expand its gaming operations on the site and build a hotel. But after more than a year of failed negotiations with the City of London and Western Fair to try to strike a new lease deal, Gateway decided to leave.

In 2019, Gateway announced its plan to build a Starlight Casino on Wonderland Road in London. It was to be a 10,000-square-metre casino with 40 table games, 900 slot machines and some 1,000 employees.

In January of 2020, work began on the site. Construction crews demolished buildings and further cleared the site. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and all work stopped on the property.

Blanchard said the reversal is, “certainly good news for all parties, including Gateway Casinos and Entertainment, Western Fair Association, and the City of London. It provides for long term stability and will continue to provide valuable economic spinoff for the area.”

Pandemic cut Ontario casino business by 76%

The pandemic hit Ontario casinos hard. And that is believed to be one of the main reasons Gateway is staying at the Western Fair.

COVID-19 restrictions closed the province’s casinos from March-September 2020 and December 2020 to February 2021 (about 10 months). Between fiscal year 2019-20 and 2020-21, casino revenue in Ontario declined 76% due to the closures.

In fiscal 2021-22, casinos also closed for four months from April 2021 to July and one month from January to February 2022.

Gateway currently operates 30 casinos across Canada, including 13 in Ontario where its flagship site is Casino Rama.

In September, Mitchell told PlayCanada

“The focus of our business at our London Fairground location and all our Gateway Casinos is on customer engagement and providing the best gaming experience we possibly can. We are cautiously optimistic the worst of the COVID pandemic is behind us and patrons will continue to be comfortable and confident that it is safe to enjoy all our casinos once again.”    ​

Gateway plans gaming expansion

This week’s decision is also good news for gamblers.

Darling told CTV:

“We are currently working on our future development plans for Gateway Casinos London that will see us expand our existing footprint to allow for the addition of our award-winning signature Gateway food & beverage brands and improved gaming experiences.”

Currently, Western Fair has 755 slots, 11 table games and 28 electronic table games.

Photo by Claus Andersen
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Dave Briggs

Dave Briggs is a managing editor and writer for Catena Media. His expertise is covering the gambling industry in Canada with emphasis on the casino, sports betting and horse racing sectors. He is currently reporting on the gaming industries in Canada and Michigan.

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