Behind the contentious Pickering, Ont., project at the centre of a battle over development in Ontario is a billionaire family keen on building a "mini Las Vegas."
The casino complex called Durham Live is in the spotlight after the Ontario government introduced a bill last week in hopes of changing a law to push it through. The developers, Triple Group, are seeking to build a warehouse connected to the project on top of a protected wetland where construction is normally forbidden.
Before that, Triple Group — run by the billionaire Greek-Canadian Apostolopoulos family — was best known for a failed bid to turn the Silverdome arena in Detroit, Mich., into the home of a soccer franchise. The building has since been demolished and the site sold to Amazon.
More recently, the company has come under fire for allowing a historic office tower in downtown Detroit to fall into disrepair, to the point that the city has threatened to file a lawsuit. The Penobscot Building went months without heat this winter, its toilets consistently overflow with excrement, and it lost power for a few days last month, disrupting hearings at a courthouse that has servers there.
In 2015, selling a vision of a sprawling entertainment district for the outer Toronto suburbs, the family said Durham Live was a different kind of endeavour.
“There is huge demand for this type of entertainment in the GTA,” Steve Apostolopoulos, son of the company’s late founder, Andreas, told Canadian Business magazine at the time.
“All of our studies have indicated that it is viable.”
The company has billed Durham Live as a massive entertainment complex and a "mini Las Vegas" near Highway 401 and connected to the GO Train.
The flashy resort and tourist destination would include a casino, water park, retail district, 15-screen movie theatre, open-air amphitheatre, performing arts centre, hotel, golf course and gourmet restaurants. It would also include a film studio operated by a Triple Group subsidiary, and create 10,000 local jobs, the company said.
The contentious Durham Live project was proposed by a billionaire family keen on building a ‘mini Las Vegas.’ Before that, they were known for a failed bid to turn the Detroit Silverdome arena in Michigan into the home of a soccer franchise. #onpoli
But now, Durham Live is facing increasing levels of backlash. Despite the protected wetland on the site, the Ford government issued a special zoning order — called a ministerial zoning order (MZO) — in October to fast-track the project, pointing to its potential economic benefit.
Pickering’s city council signed off, and Triple Group has agreed to try to replace the wetlands elsewhere. But neighbouring Ajax is against the project, regular protests have been held at the site since November, Williams Treaties First Nations have raised concerns that they weren’t consulted, and opposition parties have pledged to revoke Durham Live’s permit if they win the next election.
The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, which has said the development would cause serious damage to the Lower Duffins Creek wetland complex, said it was giving the project a permit "under duress" after the province ordered it to do so Thursday.
The Apostolopoulos family has donated at least $15,000 to the Progressive Conservatives since 2018, an Observer analysis released last month found.
Triple Group and the province have said the contributions were unrelated to the MZO. The company hasn’t weighed in on the recent backlash to Durham Live.
“This whole thing is an example of what not to do,” Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier previously told the Observer, calling it a “poster child of abuse of a MZO system.”
Casinos, meanwhile, contribute a significant amount to Ontario’s coffers. The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG), a Crown corporation responsible for gambling in the province, brought in $2.3 billion in revenue the year before COVID-19, a significant portion of which came from casinos.
Nearly all of that revenue is expected to have evaporated due to the pandemic, which has largely closed casinos, the province said in November. OLG is forecast to bring in just $200 million in 2020-21.