June 28, 2007

WoodbineLive now moving forward

Massive $350-million sports and entertainment development brings jobs, taxes

Woodbine Entertainment Group's massive $350-million sports and entertainment expansion got its wheels this week. In a rare show of unanimity, councillors showered WEG and its Baltimore-based development partner, The Cordish Company, with a chorus of support Monday, enthusiastically approving the rezoning application at Etobicoke York Community Council.

"I feel like I'm part of a Hallelujah! chorus," said Ward 4 Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby (Etobicoke Centre), calling it a model for projects to come.

The development will include a full-service hotel, a live theatre venue, retail stores, outdoor markets, restaurants, theatres, a skating park and canal similar to Rockefeller Plaza in New York, and a business office district.

Phase 2 calls for a 2,500-home residential community - to include affordable housing - to the north.

The proposed 81-hectare upscale entertainment complex at Woodbine Racetrack is on the largest swath of undeveloped, individually owned land in Toronto. It will complement horse racing and slots on Woodbine's 266-hectare property at the southwest corner of Rexdale Boulevard and Hwy. 27.

Shovels could hit the ground in nine months, with its first phase open two years later, and a projected eight-year full buildout.

Toronto's economic development department is eyeing the development's projected 9,000 permanent jobs and its share of $278 million in annual taxes to all three levels of government - critical when some say the city is near bankruptcy.

"It's going to make Rexdale the new Rosedale of Toronto," local councillor Rob Ford said. "We've been waiting for years for transit up here, to the airport, into Mississauga and Brampton.

"It will revitalize Rexdale and the surrounding area for many years to come."

Cordish legal counsel Steve Diamond said the development company's transit commitment is embedded in its agreement with the city.

Ward 11 Councillor Frances Nunziata (York South-Weston) rolled out the welcome mat for Cordish to develop in her area: "This is the best application we've ever had to vote on in my 20-year career."

It's the first Canadian project for the American firm, which has built retail-entertainment and mixed-use projects throughout the U.S., including in Atlantic City and Baltimore.

"Atlantic City had a troubled history in the last 20 years with gambling and problems with its downtown," company representative Blake Cordish said. "We opened our first phase there, and entered into an agreement for second and third phases which are opening now. Baltimore inner harbour had a derelict downtown and lacked life. Twenty five years later, it's the No. 1 tax base and the No. 1 employer in Baltimore."

Many in the surrounding neighbourhood are eyeing the development for its future jobs.

"I'm so excited about this development," Zeleda Davis, a hotel housekeeper who has raised six children and 10 grandchildren in Rexdale, told councillors. "I'm hoping it will bring a lot of good jobs that my grandchildren will be able to work at."

Davis is a member of a group known as CORD (Community Organizing for Responsible Development), a coalition of 27 community groups, including seniors, tenants, youth and job seekers, among others.

The application goes before Toronto Council for approval on July 16.

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