COLUMN: Location key for casino

Debate continues over the proposal to put a new casino near 168 Street and 10 Avenue in South Surrey.

A proposal for a casino in a rural area of South Surrey is puzzling, but it seems to have a fair bit of support from the business community.

The casino, convention centre and entertainment complex is proposed for a 25-acre rural property at 10 Avenue and 168 Street. It is not near other urban land. It would be part of a 200-room hotel complex. The operator would be Gateway Casinos, which operates the existing Cascades Casino in Langley City.

There is an existing hotel across Highway 99, and other business and urban residential areas not far away, but that area of South Surrey is rural. Not too long ago, there were several active agricultural operations in that area, historically known as South Meridian.

If South Surrey is to have a casino, and there may well be enough business there for one, it should be in an urban area, on a major arterial road, and within walking distance of a transit route. This project does not meet any of those criteria.

This casino is planning to move the existing licence from a casino in Newton, which Gateway took over after council approved expansion by a 5-4 vote. Council members aren’t enthusiastic about the Newton casino, situated in an older mall, but several love the idea of it moving to South Surrey.

Gateway says the biggest demand in the Surrey area is for an entertainment centre, as there is little entertainment available in the area. While I take issue with that sweeping statement, given the many entertainment opportunities in Surrey and White Rock, it is true that the type of acts that most casinos offer rarely come to Surrey. Many of them come to the three casinos just across the border, or to River Rock in Richmond or the Boulevard Casino in Coquitlam, which are the two best entertainment facilities among Lower Mainland casinos.

If there is that level of demand, a casino and entertainment complex makes sense –  but in the right location.

At one time, the Cloverdale Chamber of Commerce was opposed to the casino proposal, stating that it would cannibalize the existing  Fraser Downs facility. That is a legitimate concern, but the B.C. Lottery Corporation has assured Cloverdale business people that the two casinos can co-exist.

“All we’re concerned with is that Fraser Downs is the primary casino in Surrey, and they have assured us that it will be equal in size to the other one – which means it will be equal in profits,” said Brian Young, president of the Cloverdale chamber, in July.

Those wishing to gamble on horse racing and visit a casino will go to Fraser Downs, while those seeking out more of an entertainment venue mixed with gambling would head to South Surrey – theoretically. A large convention centre will be well-utilized.

However, the casino business in the Lower Mainland is close to saturation point, in my view.

The South Surrey location is also very close to the border and not far from U.S. casinos, which do attract a lot of Canadian gamblers. Whether it can keep more of them on this side of the line is debatable.

If there is a market for more casinos in Surrey, fine. But a new casino, entertainment centre and hotel needs to be in an appropriate area.

It will be interesting to follow this continuing debate.

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