Slots returning to Hiawatha creates huge investment opportunity

Cathy Dobson – The Sarnia Journal, Nov. 19, 2019

A new Gateway Casinos Sarnia will open in late January with 150 slot machines and about 60 employees, says Rob Mitchell, spokesman for Gateway Casinos & Entertainment.

Gateway is a private company that will operate the new gaming facility under construction at Hiawatha Horse Park on London Line. It already runs the Starlight Casino in Point Edward, which is “proving to be a very successful operation,” Mitchell said.

When Gateway assumed management of the Point Edward casino it completed a $26-million overhaul of the 19-year-old facility.

Re-opening a smaller slots facility at Hiawatha wasn’t on Gateway’s radar until the company was directed to do so by the Ontario government, said Mitchell.

The Point Edward and Sarnia locations are within 10 kilometres of each another.

“Reactivating Hiawatha was a decision made by the Ford government,” said Mitchell. “We are the service provider. It’s not something we decided.”

Hiawatha owner Jim Henderson said he had a lot to do with slots returning to the track he built more than 25 years ago. The horse racing industry has ups and down but the best years for him and the horsemen were when Hiawatha Slots operated from the same building.

The former Liberal government abruptly shut down Hiawatha Slots in 2012, throwing about 140 people out of work and creating uncertainty in the racing community.

Last year, the Conservatives offered tracks the choice of taking cash to bolster the racing industry or get a slots operation. Unlike tracks in Fort Erie and Dresden, Henderson chose the slots.

“This is better for the community,” he said.  “I could have taken the cash but there’s so much happening in Sarnia right now, this was better for everyone.”

Henderson made significant upgrades earlier this year to the building before Gateway took out a $2.9-million building permit and began retrofitting the new gaming floor in October.

This week, walls are being painted, the accessible washrooms are nearly complete and the slot machines will be installed soon, Henderson said.

“It looks really good.”

Mitchell confirmed that Gateway wants to open by Jan. 31 in approximately the same space as the original Hiawatha Slots. But it will have 150 machines and not the 450 Hiawatha had prior to closing.

Sarnia council has readily endorsed the plan. The city is in line to reap 5.25% of the first $65 million generated by the slots.

Mitchell said hiring is ongoing and Gateway has posted 15 job opportunities on its website, including positions for auditor, cage supervisor, guest services personnel, housekeeping, server and slot technician.

A job fair might be held in January, he added.

While the municipal slot revenue and new jobs are good news for the community, Henderson might be the biggest beneficiary.

He’s never seen so much interest in the London Line property, which has about 160 acres surrounding the racetrack. The return of Hiawatha Slots is already making “a huge difference,” he said.

“I’ve got people who want to build a hotel talking to me. There’s a restaurant chain that’s interested and a box store.

“They’ve got the paperwork drawn up already, and the hotel chain is a solid company from Toronto.

“With all the stuff happening at Hiawatha and in the Valley, the hotel people say they can get occupancy several nights a week.”

Henderson is so optimistic about Hiawatha’s future he expanded the property by buying another 15 acres next to TJ Liquidators.

“The premier said he’d do it and he did,” Henderson said. “He came here and he told us he knew the industry was messed up and that he wanted to help.”

Premier Doug Ford met with Henderson in Sarnia last November. He pledged then to come back and cut the ribbon on the new Gateway Casinos Sarnia.

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