Windsor's casino celebrates 25 years

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Windsor Star/Taylor Campbell


Kevin Laforet was nervous the day Ontario’s first commercial casino opened in Windsor in 1994. Then he saw the line of people wrapped around the building.

The regional president of Caesars Entertainment reflected on his 25 years with Caesars Windsor, and its first incarnation, Casino Windsor, during a celebration of the gambling destination’s quarter-century Tuesday. He started as the casino’s first chief financial officer less than a year after the Bob Rae-led Ontario NDP approved casino gambling for the province in 1993, and held the position until he became casino president and CEO in 2003.

“I’m a chartered accountant, so if someone had told me I’d be dealing with slot machines and entertainers, I would have thought they were crazy,” Laforet said. “But it’s been an exciting industry.”

Casino Windsor opened May 17, 1994 at a 50,000-square-foot interim location in the former Art Gallery of Windsor, itself a former brewery warehouse. There, it employed about 3,000 people by the end of its second year. The gallery was retrofitted with three gaming floors, 80 table games, thousands of slot machines and a gift shop, and rented to Casino Windsor while a permanent location was constructed on the former city market site.

Very few people morally opposed to the casino ever spoke up, according to retired Star columnist Chris Vander Doelen. The demand for news about Casino Windsor was so high he became the first full-time gambling reporter in Canada, and kept the beat for about five years. In 1999, he co-authored Chasing Lightning, The Story of Gambling in Canada.

“It’s not as though we were some sort of pristine, virginal town that didn’t know what gambling was about,” said Vander Doelen. Pro-casino voices drowned out those of protesters. Windsor had been home to three horse race tracks and 25 bingo halls. “We were up to our eyeballs in it.”

People with gambling addictions in Windsor had been losing their homes and businesses in backroom card games long before Casino Windsor opened shop, he said.

When organized labour groups in the city supported the casino as a job creator despite the potential social costs, a lot of people embraced it on that basis, he added.

The casino’s popularity prompted the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation to bring a riverboat casino, called the Northern Belle, to Windsor’s riverfront. That had a capacity of 1,500 guests, and only ceased operation when Casino Windsor moved to its current home in 1998.

“Since opening, we’ve been the number one tourist destination in our market,” Laforet said. Caesars Windsor welcomes 3.5 million guests each year, and about 1.5 million of those come from outside the region, he said.

Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island CEO Gordon Orr said he “can personally attest to the monumental shift it has been in the way we do tourism, a welcome shift indeed.” He witnessed first hand the “sad state of affairs” in the tourism industry in the late 80s and early 90s while working as the general manager of a downtown hotel before the casino took hold, he said.

The 100,000-square-foot gambling mecca that opened in 1998 was built with two floors of non-stop gaming, five dining areas, and the 21-floor, 389-room Forum Hotel Tower. In 2005, OLG and the casino broke ground on an expansion site: the convention centre, the Colosseum, and Augustus Hotel Tower.

A gala marked the 2008 transition from Casino Windsor to Caesars Windsor, with Billy Joel performing the Colosseum’s inaugural concert. That day, along with the 1994 opening, were Laforet’s two career highlights, he said.

Over its 25 years, the casino has paid out $2.5 billion in wages, and purchased just over $1 billion in goods and services from local suppliers. In total, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation has paid the City of Windsor $87 million for hosting the gaming facility, Laforet said.

“That money through OLG goes right back into the community, to invest in our parks, to invest in other infrastructure projects that are important for the community,” Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens at the Tuesday celebration. “Without OLG, without Caesars, we wouldn’t be able to do it.”

“You see what we’ve done at our waterfront over the last 15 or 20 years, we couldn’t have done that but for the revenue share and the money” from the casino, Dilkens added.

The casino’s 25 years haven’t always been smooth sailing, Laforet said, describing several challenges his organization has faced. The September 11 attacks heightened border security and made Windsor a less feasible travel destination for American gamblers. In 2004, a labour dispute closed the casino for a month—another closed it for 60 days in 2018. In 2006, it was forced to become one of the first smoke-free commercial casinos in North America when the provincial Liberals under Dalton McGuinty in 2006 implemented the Smoke Free Ontario Act. All the while, competing casinos were opening and thriving in Detroit.

“We are at a good spot,” Laforet said. “I like to say we’ve stabilized the patient with all of the different changes and challenges we’ve gone through — the future’s bright, but it will continue to be a very competitive market.”