Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A New Casino for Winnipeg

From Satellite, McPhillips Street Station (top) and Club Regent Casino (below)

This is a topic I have covered before but like issues such as Sunday shopping, it needs to be looked at again.

Sometimes, the size of a place can only be measured when seeing from above. McPhillips Street Station Casino (178.000 square feet) and its bigger sister Club Regent Casino (182,000 square feet) have been fixtures in the casino market of Winnipeg since the Crystal Casino (1989 to 1997) in Hotel Fort Garry shut down in downtown Winnipeg.

The Crystal Casino was the first permanent government run casino in the western hemisphere and garnered quite a bit of attention at the time including a Time magazine mention. While many will have a hard time recalling, the Crystal Casino was set up after the continuous non-permanent casino run at the Winnipeg Convention Centre came under scrutiny for being a draw for less desirable aspects of gambling. Children waiting for parents outside the glass walls come to mind.

The style of Crystal was to be Monaco influenced. In practical terms this meant a dress code of no jeans. There is little doubt that there was fear that the Hotel Fort Garry was going to be overrun by rubes. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the hotel was hanging on by a thread. Previous owners had been struck down by financial difficulties. The casino was a last ditch effort to save the building.

And it worked. Eventually, financial stability was restored, the right ownership was found and the casino was no longer the right fit. In other words, the seventh floor ballroom was needed for the wedding and conference business that owners knew there was demand for.

In 1993, the demand for bingo was being satisfied by people travelling out of the province or by small part time community halls.  The province, facing massive cutbacks in transfer payments, latched onto one of the only growth industry for government revenue: full time bingo halls and VLTs. Lottery and casino money was increasingly becoming an important revenue driver for the province and both Progressive Conservative and NDP governments contributed to massive expansions in gambling province-wide.

Ostensibly, the increase in VLTs was to help rural hotels from folding or to keep charity and non-government organizations funded. Then it became a way to help fund general revenue for the government of the day.

It is difficult to say what factors made the McPhillips Street Station and the Club Regent locations the top choices. Top of my head would be that the province didn't want to use land they owned behind Broadway lest it take surface parking away from provincial employees. That, and maybe there was apprehensiveness about who would be going to such bingos. A satellite view of the two locations would appear to indicate that parking was a main driver of things. However, I might also suggest that the government believed that locating a casino south of the Assiniboine River was not in the cards.

In mid 2012, the casinos are well entrenched, one with a large hotel attached, the other with one being built. Both are part of continent wide circuit of musical artists who travel coast to coast appearing at casino venues.

And yet for how large these casinos are, you could drop both inside the new Ikea building. Despite several expansions, there seems to be no let up in the demand. Even the South Beach Casino hasn't cooled things off. And if Internet gambling is any indication, there appears to be a desire for ever more choices in how and where people gamble.

The downside of gambling is as well known as the downside of alcohol and cigarettes are. What should be kept in mind is the downside of prohibition is also understood. If you don't want to see organized crime sell these things, you regulate and tax them and try to help people who might have a problem with addictions.

The two casinos north of the Assiniboine River are probably at their maximum size based on their locations. The city could probably use a third casino in the south but the same fear of protests are as likely now as they were in the past.

The province is probably only too aware that if Kapyong Barracks on Kenaston is eventually sold to First Nations that is highly probable that a large casino might be what goes up.

I don't say this to be alarmist. If I were a First Nations leader, I would be looking at how I could maximize return on that land. A Superstore and a Safeway would seem to be a lesser rent than VLTS and tables.

The province should be considering about what leaving an opening for another city casino means. Even now, the issue of a casino in the western part of the province is causing ferocious debate.

It is my opinion that the province ought to plan for a third casino and if they want to have maximum control over the location, now is the time to do it. To that end, I think a casino should return to the downtown.

There are so many items that can be checked off by bringing a large casino downtown. The issues of surface parkings lots can be addressed by building on province owned land. The ability to have people use transit for the casino will be better addressed than anywhere else in the city. And for those who do use their cars, build underground parkades.

At the very least, one or two hotels could be built to service the casino. A smart developer could probably also get an office tower and apartments going in as well like when the Winnipeg Convention Center went up.

As for the casino itself, it could bring in even more entertainers if it has a suitable hall for them. Proximity to the arena could be ideal for a sports bar and other restaurants.

More links to the skywalk system could be put in place.

In short, a casino could leverage a lot more activity if planned well and if hotel, office and residential components are added in surrounding blocks.

Now...will provincial leaders talk about it or will they play coward as they did last election and not talk about Sunday shopping and then bring it up later and say their hands were forced?

Plan a little, please.

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