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Halt the Hurried Push to Expand Gambling in Vancouver

Citizens won a moratorium with safeguards that BC Lottery Corp. now wants the city to override.

Sandy Garossino, Ian Pitfield and Andy Yan 7 May 2024The Tyee

Sandy Garossino is a former trial lawyer and current columnist, Ian Pitfield is a retired judge and Andy Yan is an urban planner.

Thirteen years after the BC Lottery Corp. failed in a major casino expansion effort in Vancouver, it’s back to try again.

And already things seem sketchy. The public is not getting the whole story. And the BCLC doesn’t want to give it to us.

BCLC is backing a motion before city council (in committee) on Wednesday morning to lift the moratorium on gambling expansion in Vancouver. There’s a hushed urgency to this whole process. What’s the rush here? And why so quiet?

That moratorium was passed by city council in 2011, after an astonishingly successful grassroots public campaign involving thousands of citizens seeking to hold the line on slots and casinos in the City of Vancouver.

Citizens from all walks of life across the political spectrum united behind a single message that Vancouver does not want a mega-casino. Dozens of churches and faith communities joined the campaign, as did charities, arts organizations, academics, physicians, lawyers, economists, policing veterans, organized crime and public health experts and eminent citizens from across the city.

The moratorium they won was not a partisan Vision Vancouver document. In its purest sense it expressed the will of the people and was passed unanimously by councillors from every party.

That moratorium provides:

(T)his moratorium shall be in effect until such time as the Province of British Columbia, the British Columbia Lottery Corp. and/or their agents:

(i) undertakes a comprehensive public consultation on the issue of expanded gambling in the City of Vancouver, and the results of this consultation are deliberated by Vancouver city council, and (ii) implements internationally recognized best practices in:

  • promotion of responsible gambling
  • prevention of problem gambling
  • treatment for problem gamblers
  • protection against money laundering, fraud and other criminal activity.

This is not a hardline, inflexible rule. Rather, it sensibly shifts the onus to the provincial government and the BC Lottery Corp. to undertake good faith public consultation and address the key concerns identified in 2011 prior to further expanding gambling in Vancouver.

The lottery corporation now asks Vancouver city council to let it off the hook, dispense with any requirement for public consultation and simply fast-track increases for slots and gaming table licences at the Parq casino and Hastings racecourse.

What is it afraid of? How can the provincial government and the lottery corporation claim the transparency and accountability it has repeatedly promised if it will not submit to public scrutiny? Why is this being quietly rushed?

For reasons shrouded in mystery, the Vancouver city manager supports this.

The sole rationale offered is that there “could” be $2.5 to $5 million new money for the city in it. The first thing that comes to mind is how paltry a number this is, to justify overturning such a major initiative.

For the value of a single Vancouver house, we’re supposed to upend a long-considered process? But we’ve heard BCLC’s promises before. Almost every projection and representation made about this project has failed to materialize.

We need independent expert projections, including calculations that net out the costs to the city of incremental addiction, treatment and policing.

Both the Parq casino and Hastings racecourse are operating well below capacity now. Parq has been in financial trouble for years, virtually since it opened in 2017. According to Business in Vancouver, in April 2019 S&P Global Ratings significantly downgraded Parq Vancouver’s parent company Parq Holdings LP to selective default, following which its $580-million debt was restructured with new partners.

Within a year the pandemic hit, shuttering the entire Canadian hospitality industry. On the heels of that disaster came the steep interest rate increases that have decimated a host of over-extended businesses.

Revenues to the city from both Parq and the Hastings racecourse operations are down over $3 million annually from their pre-pandemic highs according to the city’s own report. Hastings racecourse is only operating at 75 per cent capacity and Parq Vancouver is 18 per cent below capacity on its gaming tables.

So how will adding new licences generate revenue if the demand isn’t there? And why the hurry?

Something doesn’t add up here.

Is BCLC trying to shift a political hot potato onto Vancouver city council? But why should the City of Vancouver, with its lack of industry expertise and over-stretched staff, take this on?

BCLC has the deep pockets here. It can fund a comprehensive consultation process and it can pay for the independent reports that are needed to reassure the public and city hall. That’s what should happen now.

There should be no hurry to push through this application. Better to give it full scrutiny, mindful of BCLC’s inclination to cut corners to support troubled operators. Including when BCLC’s former CEO jumped ship to become CEO of Parq Holdings, the very entity now seeking more licences from the city. Or when BCLC concealed its extensive problems in B.C. casinos. Or when a regulatory inspector was summarily fired, possibly for asking too many questions.

Giving BCLC yet another pass and rushing this through quietly is not a good look. Not for BCLC, not for city council. And not for Vancouver.

Please let your city councillors know that the rules are there for a reason. It’s very simple.

“Know your limit. Play within it.”  [Tyee]

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