Written by: Dave Briggs

Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG) is eager to develop the 684-acre site home to Woodbine Racetrack, yet, despite huge potential, the project will be a slow, methodical one contingent on a casino operator being named, possibly the need for improved transit to the property and the willingness of outside developers to invest.

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Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG) CEO Jim Lawson said the 684-acre property home to Woodbine Racetrack is open for development, but the construction won’t come quickly and won’t even get started before the Ontario Lottery and Gaming corporation (OLG) names the gaming company that will operate an expanded casino at Woodbine. That announcement is expected in September of this year and the earliest a shovel would likely be in the ground for additional development on the property is the end of 2018, Lawson said.

The April 25 release of the master plan for Woodbine is a signal to developers that the Rexdale, ON plant — located just down the road from Toronto’s Pearson Airport — is open for development, with WEG acting as the landowner. Illustrations WEG released showing a multitude of entertainment options surrounding the racetrack are suggestions about what kinds of development could work well with the racetrack.

“Certainly, we don’t have the capital to do the development and we are risk adverse. Our main mandate is to support horse racing, so I would say that in most cases we will have a land lease and try to generate cash flow for the horse racing business,” he said. “Our role really is as the landowner and what I would call us ‘stewards’ of a great parcel of land to make sure that we do the right thing for the community and the right thing for the horse racing industry.”

Despite trying for more than 10 years to develop its property, Lawson said he is confident the latest development plan will come to fruition because WEG has “a committed gaming partner. We don’t know which gaming partner it will be, but we have a committed gaming partner that will be announced in September and, as we’ve said all along, the amount of development that will come with that is really a catalyst and a trigger for further opportunities to develop with the property.”

He was quick to stress development at Woodbine is likely a 15-to-20-year plan and WEG must “be careful and go slow and get it right to develop a community that works together and complements each other.”

Beyond being the site of an expanded casino and a top-tier horse racing venue, Lawson said what should also be attractive to developers about the Woodbine property is the fact that it is the “largest undeveloped piece of land in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area)… we’re in a unique position, really, of being a single landowner with that size of parcel of land that lets you phase it the way you want.”

He said improved public transportation to Woodbine would be a further inducement to developers.

“Developers are keenly interested in public transportation to the site. It’s something we are working on and it’s gaining momentum and acceptance. The municipality and the province are committed to public transportation in a way that is unprecedented in this province right now,” Lawson said, adding, there is “a big movement behind public transportation” in Toronto and, “potentially a mega hub in the Rexdale area, perhaps at the airport. Certainly, it would involve us. We have the Union-Pearson Line going right through our property and if the light rail transit goes over to Humber and has to make its way over to the airport, then Woodbine is the logical path, either down through (highway) 27 or through our property.”

He said he wants any development at Woodbine to be done in both a socially- and environmentally-responsible manner.

“We are reaching a whole new era in terms of urban planning and making sure that we have green space, bicycle paths and foot paths. We want to make it a nice community, which is going to take a long time.”

According to the WEG press release, the “‘city within a city’ concept is designed to unlock the value of the undeveloped land, generating long-term revenues that will sustainably support WEG’s horse racing operations, and thousands of farming jobs in rural communities across Ontario… The vision for the plan is for Woodbine to continue to be the ultimate destination for horse racing and gaming, while integrating new expanded entertainment and cultural offerings, food and dining, hotel, shopping, office space, post-secondary education, recreation, health, wellness, and urban residential living.”

Lawson said the key is to make sure development “complements and helps sustain racing for the next 20, 30, 40 years and Woodbine is the focus of that.”

He said the initial development phase “is that the gaming expansion will be a trigger for entertainment — a music venue and entertainment venue that comes with having a gaming experience and a horse racing experience… We’re trying to build the guest experience, restaurants, complementary retail, and all the rest.”

He said WEG is also open to exploring development at its sister track, standardbred racing’s Mohawk Racetrack.

“We think there is potential for development at Mohawk for all of the same reasons,” Lawson said. “We are committed to (Mohawk)… and we would welcome development there in the nature that we just talked about (at Woodbine) as an entertainment district,” Lawson said. “We know the town of Milton is very supportive and they are a great municipality and council to work with. The zoning is there for that sort of thing. Milton is the fastest growing municipality in the country, so it lends itself to this sort of additional food and beverage, music and theatre experience. Right now, the idea is to locate the gaming within the footprint of the building, but we will be in discussion, and certainly open to, having that development go on at Mohawk.”

Meanwhile, WEG is continuing to move toward making Mohawk a year-round harness racing facility and leaving Woodbine to the thoroughbreds. If that comes to fruition, it is likely the current standardbred dirt track at Woodbine would be converted to a second turf track for the runners.

“I can certainly say it’s the direction we’re headed,” Lawson said. “We think the large majority of (standardbred) horsemen will be in favor of it. We talked of the traffic congestion in the GTA and, with a lot of the training centers and shipping in for harness racing, I think a lot of people would rather be at Mohawk. Our customers like watching harness racing at Mohawk better, because they are closer to the action. And part of our deal with the OLG is that we are going to be investing capital into Mohawk and you’ll see some improvements in the near term. We’re headed in that direction. I can’t confirm to you 100 per cent, but that’s a strong consideration of where we’ll be going.”

Lawson said a 20-year gaming lease with the OLG over the Mohawk slot hall means WEG is “committed to investing capital there and our goal is to make (Mohawk) – if it’s not already – the premier site (for harness racing). If I was a horseman, I would be thrilled with the direction that we’re going and you’ll be hearing more about it this year.”

The point of developing both sites is to draw people to them and try to turn people on to horse racing.

“If we can get people out to Woodbine and Mohawk through these additional amenities and guest experiences, it gives us the chance over the longer term to introduce people to horse racing and introduce people to invest in horse racing and we really need to do that. We need to generate that kind of exposure and that’s what this is all about,” Lawson said.

“If we can get people out to Woodbine and Mohawk through these additional amenities and guest experiences, it gives us the chance over the longer term to introduce people to horse racing and introduce people to invest in horse racing and we really need to do that. We need to generate that kind of exposure and that’s what this is all about.”