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As the recognized gambling center of the Niagara Region, Fort Erie is the logical site for Canada's next gambling casino, several area officials agreed Thursday.

With its century-old Thoroughbred racetrack and its proximity to a large American betting market, Fort Erie can make casino gambling a success, said John Palumbo, general manager of the Economic Development Corp. of Fort Erie.

He was one of several top gambling officials to address a crowd of more than 250 residents during an informational meeting in the East End Area Gymnasium. They sized up Fort Erie's position in the competition for a casino and reassured residents that negative impacts can be minimized.

"Every city in the country is chasing the same jobs," Palumbo said, "but we have decided not to chase new opportunities without analyzing our strengths. Forty percent of our jobs are related to gaming -- we employ 5,500 at the Fort Erie track. We are the recognized gaming center for the region."

Bill Gillies, director of communications for the Ontario Casino Corp., said casino gambling of one kind or another is available in half the American states, as well as in the provinces of Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia. In fact, Gillies said, casino gambling is so popular in Mississippi that too many competing casinos have sprung up, dooming themselves to disaster.

That is why Ontario has licensed only a Windsor casino and the First Nation casino on an Indian reservation north of Toronto, he said. A third will be approved for Fort Erie, Niagara Falls, Ottawa or Sault Ste. Marie.

"They're all tied for first place," Gilles said. "There's no preconceived notion as to where it should be."

Gary Wood of the Ontario Provincial Police, who is director of investigations for the Gaming Control Commission of Ontario, reassured residents that the successful casino in Windsor has not brought overwhelming social problems.

"Casino gambling is probably the most closely regulated industry in the world," he said.

Wood said crime has dropped by 17 percent in Windsor since the casino opened last May.

Tibor Barsony, provincial executive director of the Canadian Foundation on Compulsive Gambling, discussed the social problems related to gambling.

"One compulsive gambler affects seven other peoples' lives, other than his immediate family," he conceded. But he cited a study showing Ontario residents have a low percentage of compulsive gamblers -- about 1 percent, or 75,000 people. Another 7.6 percent (570,000 residents) are "probable problem gamblers," he added.

Barsony concluded that a casino would be worth the risks.

Racing Commissioner Herb McGirr, who is manager of the Live Racing Enhancement Project, described how horse racing and casino gambling can coexist.

The casino at Regina, Sask., is located at the racetrack and has flourished, he said, while the one at Winnipeg, Manitoba, is in trouble because it is far from the track.

During the question period, the Rev. Ken Cardwell of the Fort Erie Ministerial Association warned of the dangers of "economic pragmatism" to create jobs at any cost and said: "We're dealing with the spirit and soul of a community. Do you really know what you are doing? Think carefully before it's too late."

"I appreciate your concern," replied Barsony, "but if it's not here, they're going to have it next door. You're not going to save the world. This is reality."

Resident Tom Jeacock asked how many casinos might be approved in the next 10 to 15 years.

"No province wants to follow the American model you've seen in some states," said Gillies, who assured him that the Ontario Casino Corp. will not approve competing casinos anywhere.

Later, Fort Erie Mayor John Teal expressed confidence that his town will be chosen and that casino gambling will flourish alongside horse racing.

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