Anti-casino crusader points finger at Vancouver city hall

Opponents argue that slot machines and games tables create gambling.
Photograph by: Dan Toulgoet, Vancouver Courier

Reprinted from the Vancouver Courier:

Complex will boast 1,500 slot machines

By Mike Howell, Vancouver Courier
November 15, 2010

You can hear the exasperation in Bill Chu’s voice.

After years of unsuccessfully fighting city council and others in the Lower Mainland to keep casinos out of municipalities, Chu is frustrated at the lack of public outcry against a Las Vegas-style resort casino planned for downtown that could be the largest in B.C.

“If people were as mad about this as they are about the [harmonized sales tax], then we might see a difference,” said Chu, coordinator of the Multicultural Coalition Against Gambling Expansion. “Personally, I spent 10 years fighting casinos. Our energy is spent and somebody else has to step up and do something. This is not the duty of a few citizens.”

In March, Premier Gordon Campbell announced a new 68,000 sq. foot entertainment complex attached to B.C. Place that will include two hotels, a casino with up to 150 games tables and 1,500 slot machines, restaurants, a theatre and cabaret.

The proposal, however, first has to be approved by Vancouver city council, which will decide whether the property is an appropriate use for such a complex and whether gambling should be expanded in the city.

Before the end of the year, council is expected to refer the proposal to a public hearing for some time in 2011. Until then,Vision Vancouver Coun. Geoff Meggs said he won’t decide whether the $450 million project should go ahead.

“I’m not going to comment on whether I favour it or don’t favour it until I’ve heard all the information from people,” said Meggs, who noted the lack of mobilization by anti-gambling proponents against the proposal. “What I’m struck by is how quiet that whole business is. I don’t see any heat on it. It could come but it hasn’t started yet.”

Meggs suggested the lack of interest could be related to people not understanding the magnitude of the project. As he pointed out, a new casino would be more than double the size of the Edgewater Casino at the Plaza of Nations, which will relocate to the proposed complex. Edgewater has 65 games tables and 493 slots.

“Maybe the public is fine with that, and we’ll see once it’s referred to public hearing, but it is striking how quiet it is (compared to previous casino proposals before council),” Meggs added.

Las Vegas-based Paragon Gaming Inc. owns Edgewater, having bought it from local owners Len Libin and Gary Jackson in September 2006 for $43 million. The deal made Paragon the first foreign owner of a casino in B.C.

The company specializes in Native American and First Nations gaming in the United States and Canada. Paragon formerly operated the Sahara Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

Hastings Racecourse, which is operated by Great Canadian Casino, is home to the only other casino in the city and has 600 slots. More than five years ago, previous councils approved slot machines at both casinos, despite pushback from community groups and a minority of councillors.

Until those approvals, the city councils of the day boasted about not allowing slot machines in the city. The biggest rejection occurred in 1994 when the NDP government floated a mega casino to be built on the Vancouver waterfront by Las Vegas gambling magnate Steve Wynn.

But Chu believes the current council, which includes politicians who voted for slot machines, will approve the mega casino proposal. The fact that profits from developing the land slated for the complex will be used to pay for the $458-million retractable roof being built on B.C. Place is more evidence the proposal is a done deal, Chu said.

Chu has argued that slot machines and adding games tables would create gambling addicts and attract criminals such as gangsters and loan sharks, which has occurred in Richmond.

The Vancouver Police Department announced Nov. 8 that three men were arrested in connection with a robbery of a Vancouver customer of the River Rock Casino in Richmond.

The VPD also investigated a similar robbery in 2006 when a customer of the Edgewater Casino was followed home and hit over the head with a pipe and slashed across his abdomen and back.

“We’ve seen one council after another not choosing to listen to the people, but listening to the casino proponents,” Chu said. “It is now become government for the casino and by the casino. The resistance from us has obviously not been working too well.”

In July 2009, the city released a report that said the addition of 600 slot machines at Hastings Racecourse was not harming the surrounding community as was anticipated by residents.

The staff report said traffic, problem gamblers, prostitution or crime has not increased in the area. The report, however, pointed out that 150 slots began operating at the racecourse only in November 2007. An additional 450 slots weren’t added until August 2008.

“While it may be early to do a full analysis of impacts, indications are that the addition of slots has not materialized in some of the negative impacts raised as concerns during the rezoning process,” wrote Mario Lee, a city senior social planner.

If council approves the B.C. Place proposal, it will get a small percentage of the profits. That number hasn’t been revealed, although a government news release issued in March indicated “the facility is expected to generate up to $130 million in gaming revenues that will be distributed to the province in the first full year.”

According to a city report released in June 2008, the total contribution to the “Edgewater Casino Social Responsibility Reserve” was $700,000 and expected to grow at a rate of $200,000 a year until July 2013, totaling $1.7 million.

At the time of the report, more than $220,000 of the money was allocated for community grants and $75,000 for a “crime-free multi-housing program.”

Twitter: @Howellings

© Copyright (c) Vancouver Courier

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