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Gambling Goes Boom

Slot machines in rebranded bingo halls boost BC revenues.

By Andrew MacLeod 3 Mar 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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Slots: part of a $1 billion payout to province.

The British Columbia government has already put slot machines into 10 bingo halls and over the last two years doubled its money from the new community gaming centres. Now it's betting it can double it again in the next two.

In 2004 the government-owned B.C. Lottery Corporation quietly began introducing slot machines into bingo halls and rebranding the mini-casinos as "community gaming centres." It is promoting them under the Chances banner.

In Courtenay on Feb. 28 the province opened its 11th gaming centre. It will have 75 slot machines. The ribbon cutting included Playtime Community Gaming Centres Inc. CEO Tom Nellis, BCLC vice-president Marsha Walden and Courtenay mayor Starr Winchester.

A 12th gaming centre is scheduled to open in Prince George in March with 79 slot machines. Municipal councils in Castlegar, Abbotsford and Langley have also OK'd the concept for their communities, and planning is underway. A BCLC spokesperson said other communities are also discussing the idea.

Industry's big take

In the 2005-2006 fiscal year the centres had $53.7 million in revenue. This year, 2007-2008, the BCLC forecasts revenue from the centres will exceed its budget target and hit $115.7 million. In two more years revenue targets should hit a $249.8 million jackpot and are expected to keep growing from there.

"Revenue generated from community gaming centres is increasing as more are developed, and also because community gaming centres have been well received by players and their local communities," said the service plan.

Bingo revenues have declined for several years as the BCLC shifts bingo halls to gaming centres. Government smoking regulations were also expected to cut bingo revenue by up to 25 per cent, according to analysis in the BCLC's service plan released Feb. 19.

The growth in gaming centres is part of the expansion of gambling in the province, with much of the increase coming from casinos. Total BCLC revenues are expected to hit $2.65 billion for 2008-2009. That's up from $1.6 billion in 2000-2001, the last fiscal year before the BC Liberal party took office.

After prizes, commissions, service fees and operating costs were paid, the province kept over $1 billion in 2006-2007. Seventy per cent of that was used for government spending. Local governments got $76.1 million and charities and community groups got $142.4 million.

Betting on more

Gaming centres are already open in Campbell River, Cowichan, Dawson Creek, Fort St. John, Kamloops, Kelowna, Mission, Port Alberni, Prince Rupert and Williams Lake.

In 2004 five communities had approved slots in bingo halls. A BCLC spokesperson said at the time the agency would consider putting slots in all 27 bingo halls in the province. To convert a hall requires approval from the local municipal council, which is offered 10 per cent of revenue from the machines.

Powell River, Vernon and Coquitlam also considered the idea, but have so far declined to act on it.

The service plan makes clear the BCLC still plans to expand gaming centres. "BCLC's priority is to work with bingo service providers to transform bingo halls in key market locations to community gaming centres," it said.

Those centres will offer "more entertaining products, including slot machines, electronic and other more entertaining games, in upgraded facilities with improved customer service and amenities such as restaurants and lounges."

Or as Chances' website describes the current centres, "These state-of-the-art facilities include stylish, comfortable seating and amenities such as restaurants, lounges, and big screen TVs; just the mix of options needed to ensure a good time for everyone in your crowd."

Broken promise

The obvious question is how the growth in mini-casinos, and gambling revenues in general, reconciles with the Liberals 2001 promise to stop expanding the industry. But the minister responsible, Solicitor General John Les, was unavailable.

"That's crazy," said Roger Horbay, when told of the growth in community gaming centre revenue. Horbay is the president of Game Planit, a problem gambling specialist and an expert on electronic gambling machines. "Those revenues are losses for somebody. . . . The money's being drained out of those communities."

Horbay's company, based in Ontario, makes a computer tutorial that educates people on how electronic slot machines work. Once people understand, he said, they can make a more informed choice about whether or not to play.

Unlike with slot machines, he said, in bingo players can see the balls and feel confident they come out in a random order. "It's pretty transparent. When you're playing bingo, you're not under any deceptions about how the game works."

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