By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 4, 2006
WINDSOR, Ontario, Feb. 3 -- Five minutes from downtown Detroit, the countdown to Super Bowl debauchery has begun. Soon, fans will be carousing with escorts and nude dancers while smoking Cuban cigars and stuffing thousands of dollars worth of gambling tickets in their pockets. That mix could result in jail time in Detroit, where Super Bowl XL will be held Sunday. But just across the Detroit River, it won't draw a second look.
The people of this city are bracing for an onslaught of Super Bowl tourists, with the proximity to Detroit and Canada's more liberal entertainment laws providing an enticing combination. In Windsor, fans can find government-licensed prostitutes, all-nude strip clubs open almost around the clock and serving alcohol until 2 a.m., legalized Super Bowl gambling through the provincial lottery, a legal drinking age of 19 and no trade embargos on Cuban goods.
In a security briefing Monday, NFL representatives advised players for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks to stay out of Windsor, a warning that may have served to pique their curiosity.
"They said it's a lot more liberal over there with the laws and everything, and we should stay away," Steelers defensive tackle Chris Hoke said. "But some of the guys who are in their twenties, they're going to do whatever they want, whether you tell them to or not. I'm the type of guy to have a nice dinner and get back to the room so I'm not into all of that, but I'm sure there's some guys who are, and they'll be over there."
The town has a waterfront casino, abundant restaurants, a favorable exchange rate, an international border that is easily manageable and an attitude that "what happens in Windsor stays in Windsor." As Windsorites are quick to point out, laws are the same as in other Canadian cities, and were in place well before the Super Bowl was awarded to Detroit.
"I'm angry that they call us Sin City, because I'm envious of our position," said Mark Boscariol, who owns five bars and restaurants in Windsor. "Because if you want to tempt your gluttony, you can do it at our restaurants. If you want to tempt your lust, you can do it at our nightclubs and strip joints. If you want to tempt your greed, you can try your luck at the casino. If you're feeling a little bit of sloth, you can hang out in one of our lounges. Our entertainment industry is something we have as a natural resource, and it's a fit, and we're hoping to promote it."
Boscariol, who is the chair of Windsor's Business Improvement Association, said seven previously vacant downtown properties were redeveloped at least in part because of the Super Bowl. "It can't just be a coincidence," said Boscariol, a lifelong Windsorite. "I've never seen seven businesses open in a month in our downtown."
That is precisely the fiscal boost Mayor Eddie Francis was hoping for when Windsor paid $250,000 to take a bigger role as an official co-host of the Super Bowl.
Originally, Windsor's involvement in the game was to be limited to hotel rooms to enable Detroit to meet the NFL's requirement. But Francis worked with Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick on the planning committee, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue approved Windsor's pitch to host several league-sanctioned galas and fan festivals and the league has been touting Canada's connection with the Super Bowl all week.
"We're no different than any other Canadian city," said Francis, whose city placed ads in newspapers in Pittsburgh and Seattle this week. "You can find Cuban cigars and drink in Ontario under the age of 19 and certainly you can go to strip clubs, and every city has strip clubs. What we know is that when people get over here they'll discover there's more to Windsor, and certainly with all the NFL events taking place on the waterfront they'll discover there's a great city here with enough options for all types of entertainment."
With so much of their livelihood depending on tourists, Windsor residents usually welcome foreigners. But they are not naive about what drives many of them to come here -- the ability to do things freely that are illegal in the States. Kilpatrick acknowledges this, too, although he is not worried about losing revenue to Windsor.
"I guess a bad answer would be, 'We'll let you get away with more stuff here,' " Kilpatrick said while laughing. "But, no, we're not worried about that. We believe there's enough for everybody, and we believe the partnership will be good."
It is illegal to solicit for prostitution in Windsor, but the city has 14 licensed escort agencies. There is no nude dancing in Michigan, but all-nude is the norm in Canada with most clubs offering private dances for $10-$20. The lower drinking age has lured Michigan's college students to Windsor for years, and while Detroit has added casinos to compete with long-standing Casino Windsor, there are no tax implications on winnings in Canada.
Ontario's Pro Line gambling lottery is available in virtually every convenience store, offering selections on all pro sporting events, including Sunday's game. Bets cannot be placed exclusively on one game; there are a minimum of three and maximum of six bets on any ticket. So one ticket could include Sunday's point spread and over/under, but would require a third bet on another sporting event as well. The maximum bet per ticket is $200 Canadian, about $175, but there is no limit to how many times one can return to a store or stores to place bets.
The NFL has never had a Super Bowl this close to a legalized gambling site before, but Francis said the issue never came up in negotiations with league officials.
"Our position on gambling does not change with proximity to Windsor," said Milt Ahlerich, the NFL's vice president of security. "It is absolutely at a great arm's length from the National Football League. We don't recognize sports betting on our event as having any role whatsoever on the conduct of this game. We basically learned the integrity of our game is as clean as possible -- it is clean -- and the proximity here doesn't impact that at all."
Holly Ward, the director of communications for Casino Windsor, said all 389 rooms were booked for this weekend eight months ago, and the casino anticipates upwards of 20,000 visitors a day and a three-hour wait in its poker rooms.
Thursday night was actually quite tame around Windsor, though, with just one car crossing the border at the tunnel around 7:30 p.m. -- the customs agent in Canada nonchalantly waved both passengers through, never checking passports and barely lifting her eyes from the book she was reading -- and around 2 a.m. there were only three cars passing back into Detroit.
With Pittsburgh less than five hours away by car, Francis said he was told to expect thousands of fans in RVs, and Windsorites definitely had a rooting interest in the AFC championship game between Pittsburgh and Denver two weeks ago.
"I'm a CFL fan -- Argos [Toronto Argonauts] all the way -- but we were really pulling for the Steelers," said Renaldo Agostino, the marketing director for a company that owns four strip clubs. "We know they'll really bring the people in."
The intersection of Chatham Street and Ouellette Avenue might be the epicenter of the randy nightlife. Jason's, one nude club, is directly across the street from the Million Dollar Saloon, another nude bar, on the tiny block, which also includes several stores selling Cuban cigars and a small, below-street-level storefront offering "Exotic Massages." Large posters offering football pool betting are displayed prominently behind the bar in many of the strip clubs -- another no-no in the States -- but at least one club is not staying open later than usual, football madness or not.
"Personally, I feel 2 a.m. is late enough," said Brad McLellan, general manager at Jason's. "There's got to be a limit somewhere. It's not like this is Vegas."