Is B.C. moving from Olympic Games to wide-open gaming?

Vancouver City Council will hear public concerns about putting Western Canada's largest casino into the iconic B.C. Place Stadium.

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The B.C. Place Stadium during the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games

Vancouver City Council will hear public concerns about putting Western Canada's largest casino into the iconic B.C. Place Stadium.

Vancouver is just waking up to the fact that it’s about to get the biggest casino in Western Canada embedded in 63,000-seat B.C. Place Stadium. It’s part of a deal to pay for the $500-million-plus cost of the stadium renovation, featuring the largest cable-supported retractable roof in the world — “a new architectural signature for our province, a new place for all British Columbians to let their passion shine,” according to the promotional video. Construction is well underway, with the roof looking like an upturned umbrella with its 14-storey masts jutting out around the roof perimeter.

This project has been in the works for three years at least, but the expanded Edgewater Casino proposal was only revealed last spring, and its only moment of public debate comes up Monday (Feb. 21) at a city hall public hearing, postponed from this week in part because of the number of people wanting to speak. Opposition has only flared up in the past two weeks as people wake up to all the implications. Do we really want to have to walk past drug dealers carrying hockey bags full of $20 bills into the casino when we take our kids to the new home of the Vancouver Whitecaps MLS soccer team? (The B.C. Lottery Corporation was fined $697,000 last spring by federal regulators for more than 1,000 infractions involving people leaving the casino with more than $10,000.)

Municipal councils in B.C. have to approve casino expansions. This one’s a whopper by Vancouver standards: two football fields of gambling space. The old Edgewater on the nearby False Creek waterfront would move up into the stadium with 1,500 electronic slot machines and 150 tables. That makes it 50 percent bigger than the River Rock Casino on the new Canada Line in Richmond. The $450-million development includes two hotels, restaurants, and a night club, with promises to pay $6 million a year to B.C. Pavilion Corporation, a crown corporation that owns the stadium, to help pay for the roof.

Vancouver City Council has been neatly hemmed in on this one. The previous council approved — in fine print in an appendix that no one read (I was on council at the time) — “a major casino” as a possible use in an October 2008 decision approving increased density on the site. All the discussion was about moving the Vancouver Art Gallery there, which is  not happening now. The current council, wary of the November 2011 election coming up, is not inclined to support gambling, but as always, there are enticing benefits if they do.

This week’s decision is tangled up in a big knot of land use swaps, street closures, and rezoning approvals, with some social housing sites thrown in as enticement. Not to mention $10 million or $17 million or $27 million in new revenues to the city, depending on who’s counting.

Proponents for the new casino complex argue that it will create thousands of new jobs and new revenue. For the first time, some of that revenue will flow south. The Edgewater is owned by Las Vegas-based Paragon Development, the first time an American operator has owned a casino in B.C. Paragon’s only U.S. property is the 15-slot Creek Bar and Grill in West Las Vegas. They also run two Canadian casinos in partnership with First Nations: a truck stop casino in Whitecourt Alberta, and the River Cree Casino in Enoch Alberta, the latter a third the size of its Vancouver proposal.

Paragon CEO Scott Menke says his focus will be on “destination tourism,” but it’s hard to imagine a high roller from Sydney, Singapore, or San Francisco picking Vancouver’s new slot emporium as the gambling destination of choice.

The local gambling market is widely believed to be saturated, with many of the bigger municipalities around Vancouver boasting their own casinos and the biggest ad contract in the province constantly urging us to gamble more. Edgewater was in bankruptcy when Paragon moved in, and the competing Hastings Park Racetrack at the Pacific National Exhibition grounds, propped up by the addition of slots a few years ago, is said to be struggling and ready to consolidate with another racetrack outside town.

For some of us, this takes our dependence on gambling revenue a step too far, although no one in the city or the province has ever spelled out what the limits to the expansion of gambling should be. The B.C. government now gets more money from gambling — $1.1 billion net last year — than from all corporate taxes combined. The B.C. Lottery Corporation recently launched the first government-sponsored online gambling operation in North America, then bumped betting limits up to $9,999, just below the level that would require reporting transactions to federal regulators to prevent money-laundering. In some municipalities, high school graduation ceremonies are held in casinos.

There’s a vague unease everywhere about funding public services on the backs of low-income gamblers and people with gambling addictions — not to mention tolerating increases in crime and drug money-laundering which are often hard to measure. The same government minister who monitors gambling infractions is in charge of maximizing gambling revenues, which might explain why he shut down the Integrated Illegal Gambling Enforcement team in 2009. The fox-guarding-the-henhouse theme continued with the former head of the B.C. Lottery Corporation, Richard Turner, becoming an investor in Paragon’s Alberta properties while he was still running BCLC.

But we do all this because we love the money. As B.C. Lottery Corporation CEO Michael Graydon says, “Thirty-three per cent of people in B.C. now enjoy gaming in some form as part of their personal entertainment. If Vancouver doesn’t do this, people will go to some other municipality and spend their money anyway.”

When is enough too much? Vancouver City Council will have a chance to answer that question at the public hearing this week. There were 80 people lined up to speak with two days to go. There’s a lot to talk about.

This article has been updated to reflect the change in the hearing schedule.


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