BCLC rolls dice again in quest for new casinos South of Fraser and on North Shore

Surrey, Delta and TFN invited to apply, along with North Shore cities and first nations

The B.C. Lottery Corp. is once again testing the appetite of local governments for new casinos South of the Fraser and on the North Shore.

BCLC is inviting Surrey, Delta and the Tsawwassen First Nation to submit expressions of interest by July 15 if they’d consider a new casino or community gaming centre.

And the same pitch is being made on North Shore to North Vancouver City, North Vancouver District, West Vancouver, the Squamish Nation and Tsleil Waututh Nation.

Gambling in the Surrey and Delta area only exists so far at Elements Casino in Cloverdale (formerly Fraser Downs) and Newton Bingo Country.

BCLC estimates a new South of Fraser facility could generate $25 to $50 million in revenue, with $1.5 to $3 million a year flowing to the host local government through the province’s policy of sharing 10 per cent.

RELATED: A contentious history of gaming in Surrey

There is no casino or gaming centre on the North Shore, and BCLC says the 150,000 adult residents there spend less than average gambling. Revenues from a facility there is estimated at $25 to $40 million, with $1.5 to $2.2 million generated for the local host community.

It’s been just over three years since Surrey city council voted 5-4 to reject a $100-million casino/hotel proposal in South Surrey off Highway 99 that would have aimed to divert gamblers now heading south to U.S. casinos.

That defeat prompted BCLC’s then-CEO Michael Graydon to rule out any further attempt at gambling expansion in Surrey for the forseeable future, and to instead pursue sites with other municipalities and willing first nations, including the Semiahmoo First Nation near the defeated South Surrey site.

“Three years have passed since that time and we can’t ignore the fact the region has seen more population growth,” BCLC spokesperson Angela Koulyras said Wednesday.

But Semiahmoo isn’t on the list of local governments being pitched this time.

Koulyras said that’s partly because Great Canadian Gaming has heavily invested in improving and rebranding Fraser Downs racetrack as Elements Casino.

“Residents in White Rock and the Semiahmoo area are being very well served by the Elements Casino and also the Cascades facility in Langley,” she said. “So those two markets don’t have the same potential as Surrey, Delta and the Tsawwassen First Nation lands do.”

Asked if that same logic rules out any site in the South Surrey area, putting the focus on the rest of Surrey, Koulyras refused to answer, saying it’s too early to discuss specific locations or neighbourhoods.

Nor would she say if a casino in Delta might be best suited to North Delta, Tsawwassen or Ladner.

Rendering of Gateway Casinos’ proposed South Surrey casino and entertainment complex that was rejected by Surrey city council 5-4 in January 2013.

Koulyras said BCLC believes there’s still “significant opportunity at hand that we haven’t captured” in the two regions of the Lower Mainland.

The process will offer “equal opportunity” to the invited local governments, she said.

Municipal councils are already mobilizing to prepare staff reports on the pros and cons ahead of what is sure to be intense debate on whether to formally join the process.

“There are pluses and minuses to all the proposals that come forward,” Delta Mayor Lois Jackson said, listing policing, traffic and neighbourhood concerns. “I’m certainly open to seeing what might be possible. I certainly wouldn’t say no at the first blush.”

She acknowledged that a potential bid by the neighbouring Tsawwassen First Nation may be a consideration for Delta council, which would lose out on the revenue flow if BCLC sides with TFN.

In 2013, Jackson predicted heavy opposition in Delta to any new proposal there.

The potential that a facility might open on nearby aboriginal land anyway is also a consideration on the North Shore, said North Vancouver CIty Mayor Darrell Mussatto.

He noted the Tsleil Waututh have previously expressed interest in hosting a gaming facility, and the Squamish Nation already hosts a community gaming centre on Highway 99 just south of Squamish.

“I think it is time that we look at this,” Mussatto said. “My personal opinion is I’d like to explore it. But I’m just one vote.”

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said she’s not surprised that BCLC is again interested in Surrey and considers it a viable market, despite the “bad taste in everybody’s mouth” that was left by the 2013 rejection.

She said she believes BCLC is most interested in the northern and western portions of the city this time, rather than South Surrey.

“I do not know how my council feels,” Hepner said.

The city has a policy that permits a new destination casino but Hepner said council will have to decide if it’s prepared to stand by that and enter the new BCLC process, or change course.

Hepner, who voted in favour of the new South Surrey casino in 2013, said if Surrey puts itself in the running she will insist on a much different process than unfolded leading up to the previous decision.

She said council was drawn into a role of helping shape the proposal.

“We were the ones who said make the theatre bigger,” Hepner said. “There were back and forth conversations around the art of the possible, and I don’t think I would engage in those conversations at all any more. I’m not going down that garden path again.”

If council does agree to consider a new casino, she said, it should be up to adminstration not council to deal with the applicant up until it goes to a final vote of council.

White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin said that while casinos are a “great source of supplementary income for municipalities,” there is also a price to be paid associated with gambling.

“I don’t know that our community is ready to pay that price,” Baldwin said. “I have not heard of any desire on anybody’s part to have a casino in White Rock, and council hasn’t set it as one of our goals.”

Baldwin said he had no concerns about the BCLC not including White Rock as an option for a new casino facility, noting officials likely thought it “wouldn’t work in this area, which is fine.”

Semiahmoo First Nation officials could not be reached for comment.

Local governments are not required to make a firm commitment  by July 15, but only indicate in writing whether they are willing to enter the process and disclose some details on their local policies and zoning, including any local regulations permitting or restricting gambling.

Koulyras said BCLC would then score the local governments by various criteria – including population, transportation access, estimated revenue potential for that community and their policies, plans and zoning.

The highest ranking municipality would then be announced as the host local government, with determination of a service provider and a formal proposal to follow. The local council would ultimately be able to approve or reject the final proposal.

The facilities could be anything from a small community gaming centres – typically hosting bingos, some slot machines and a restaurant – to a full-scale casino as part of an hotel or conference centre with table games, many slots and entertainment facilities.

– files from Melissa Smalley, Peace Arch News

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