OP-ED: It’s Time to Hold ‘Em, Mayor
By Neil Monckton
Can city council move all in on the province’s much-expanded gambling plans for Vancouver? Last March, the province announced a new “destination casino” in one of the city’s most rapidly growing areas.
In the coming weeks, citizens and their council will finally have an opportunity to table their demands for future benefits. And they had better, because so far the BC Liberal government has not offered Vancouver much in return for accepting this controversial development.
It is controversial for three chief reasons.
First, the city may get a far lower share of the gambling revenues than promised by the province in past agreements.
While the revenue-sharing agreement has yet to be finalized, the city’s take is expected to be much lower than it would have been ten years ago. In 1999, the then-NDP government promised a 16.7 per cent share of gaming profits for those municipalities which allowed destination-style casinos. However, Solicitor General Rich Coleman recently dismissed the BC Association for Charitable Gaming claim for a 33 per cent share of the new casino’s gaming revenue, as promised in a related 1999 agreement. If the BC Liberals are renouncing an eleven-year-old profit-sharing agreement with the province’s charitable sector, why would they honour a similar deal made with civic governments?
Some civic watchers believe Vancouver may see its share cut to less than 10 per cent. With $130-million in annual revenues expected for the province this means the city may be shorted by as much as $10-million a year.
Second, this massive new casino will certainly have some negative impacts on the area. With triple the capacity of the existing Edgewater site, this monster gambling house is 61 per cent larger than BC’s biggest casino, Richmond’s River Rock. It will feature 150 tables and up to 1,500 slot machines – nearly 15 per cent of all the slots in the province.
According to research by the Alberta Gaming Research Institute, expanded gambling capacity means increased costs borne by individual problem gamblers and their families. It is also puts more demand on policing, courts, other criminal justice services, and the healthcare system. As well, new gambling opportunities have been shown to drain economic activity from neighbouring retail, entertainment and food service businesses.
Short of rejecting the casino development, the city has virtually no control over mitigating the new casino’s negative impacts. The public services and legislative tools in place to deal with the fallout from gambling are almost all in Victoria’s control.
Third, the only community amenity the city is getting in return for accepting this casino is a not-so-retractable roof on BC Place. In the fall of 2008, city council voted to forgive all development cost levies and community amenity contributions the city usually gets from developers. It was argued at the time that this arrangement was needed to finance BC Place’s new $563-million roof, through land development around the property – development that could include a casino.
Rubbing more salt into the wound, PavCo CEO David Podmore, the head of the crown corporation that manages BC Place, recently told BC Business the good burghers of Vancouver should be happy with our lot: “Not asking for any money from the municipality and protecting [BC Place’s] operations for the next 40 or 50 years with the economic benefits that it brings – I mean, that’s a giant community amenity to Vancouver."
However, the city does have one ace in the hole. The province relies completely on city council to pass the necessary zoning changes before the $450-million mega-gambling development can proceed.
In fact, council must hold up to two public hearings – one to approve the casino land swap and the other to amend the northeast False Creek development plan – sometime in the next two months, if construction is to go ahead in early 2011 as planned. (Of course, Victoria’s legislature could override the city’s decision, but that would be an extreme action for an unpopular and unstable BC Liberal government to take at this time.)
Last time it made this deal, city council gave in to the demands of the provincial government to fix the roof on an aging stadium. This time, city council has an opportunity to advance the needs of the 55,000 residents of the Central Business District, Yaletown, Gastown, Chinatown, Strathcona and the Downtown Eastside, as well as the 7,000 future residents of the new Concord development around BC Place.
The possibility of securing significant community amenities for current and future residents of the eastern portion of the downtown peninsula is now squarely back on the table. But what can the city ask for in exchange for accepting this development?
Yaletown residents will tell you they need more elementary school spaces. The fast-growing Gastown and Central Business District areas could benefit from a full-service community centre or more daycare spaces. Strathcona wants a full-service library branch (with or without social housing). Chinatown’s leaders are looking for help in renewing their historic neighbourhood to attract new families.
The Carnegie Community Action Project continues to call for more social housing in the Downtown Eastside. The Vancouver Canucks’ parent company, Aquilini Investment Group, is proposing the city get onboard with a sometimes open-to-the-public False Creek ice rink. The Vancouver Arts Alliance is arguing that the province should reinstate all the gaming funds previously used to support community services provided by charities and non-profits. Think City is advocating for a pedestrian and cyclist bridge uniting the north and south shores of False Creek.
The possibilities are endless.
Can Mayor Gregor Robertson and his councillors open up public debate and bolster the city’s demands to the province and the destination casino developers? Can our city council wrest the kind of community benefit Vancouver deserves?
So far, city council and the vast majority of the public have shown minimal enthusiasm for restaging the casino wars that dominated the council agendas under Mayors Philip Owen and Larry Campbell. And time is running out.
It would be a great shame if all Vancouver ends up with is a half-billion dollar roof that can’t close in the rain.
Neil Monckton is a resident of Gastown and the chair of Think City.
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