The announcement of plans for a $7-million upgrade at Casino Niagara - the 'other' casino in Niagara Falls, alongside the grand Niagara Fallsview Casino - is the latest happy turn in the city's history as a centre for gaming.

But it was never a sure thing that any casino would ever open here.

These days, each of the two gaming houses - located a couple of kilometres apart in the tourism district - has its own fans. People who enjoy the big-scale oppulence of the Fallsview go there not just to gamble but also for shopping, the restaurants and concerts.

The older, smaller Casino Niagara is loved for its coziness, restaurants and history.

Its opening in 1996 followed a year or two of heated, sometimes angry, debate in Niagara Falls over whether any casino should ever be opened here.

Public workshops and open houses were held; arguments went back and forth in the local papers; debates were staged where speakers threw the pro and con opinions back and forth.

Windsor already had its casino at that point, the first to be opened in Ontario by the NDP government of the day. The City of Niagara Falls, as a world-class tourist spot, wanted one of its own - but first it had to resolve the argument within its own community.

When it finally did decide in favour of hosting a gaming centre, the next debate was over where to put it. Again, words flew back and forth before two finalists were determined: Maple Leaf Village, a longtime destination near Clifton Hill, or in the iconic Skylon Tower.

In a ceremony, it was announced Maple Leaf Village was the winning site for what was thought at the time would be only a temporary casino until a larger one could be built. That set off months of construction, turning a tired old tourist mall into a glittering casino that could accommodate thousands of people each day.

Midway through that work, during a media tour of the construction site the project leader showed reporters where the Billionaires' Club would be.

A reporter, not quite sure he'd heard right, asked: "Did you say millionaires or billionaires?"

"Billionaires," the guide answered. "Everybody's a millionaire these days."

Finally in December 1996 the new casino was ready to open. Dignitaries and others were invited to a special pre-opening gala before the doors were thrown open to the public.

Shuttle buses were arranged for the audience. Men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns arrived, each receiving a commemorate five-dollar gaming token as a keepsake. Country singer Michelle Wright entertained in the casino lobby and bigwigs spoke about the great impact the new casino would have on the city.

Twenty-one years later the casino is still drawing visitors by the millions each year (though the use of tokens for gambling went out years ago).

The $7-million upgrade announced in October, combined with other recent investments, means Ontario Lottery and Gaming will have poured nearly $30 million into keep the city’s original casino modern and competitive.

It offers 1,300 slot machines and 40 table games, and the two casinos combined employ more than 4,000 people directly to serve nearly nine million visitors year-round. Casino Niagara can be found in the Clifton Hill district of Niagara Falls.

Last modified: September 21, 2018