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Vancouver Has a Downtown Casino and They're Doing Just Fine
There is at least one city in this country where an urban casino hasn't transformed its neighbourhood into a pit of degradation

Vancouver’s Edgewater Casino. Image via flickr / Mike McHolm

As Toronto contemplates a downtown gambling house, opponents may decry the proposal as a magnet for sin. But there is at least one city in this country where an urban casino hasn’t transformed its neighbourhood into a pit of degradation — and it has been called Canada’s most livable.

The streets and walkways that surround Vancouver’s Edgewater Casino are by no means teeming with junkies and graveyards as Toronto Standard‘s Jeff Halperin would expect. With numerous rental units and condos in the neighbourhood, the seaside path at the back of the casino sees a lot of traffic from young families, cyclists and urban professionals out for a jog. Located at the Plaza of Nations, which was the hub of Expo 86, concerts performed on its outdoor stage still attract music lovers from all corners of the city during the summer months.

It is a quiet area considering its proximity to Vancouver’s ultra-hip Yaletown and the notoriously rowdy Granville Street — but that is about to change. The city is considering new life to the area by replacing an under-used highway, the Georgia Viaduct, with a park and mixed-use development. High rise condos, which feature children’s play areas and dog parks, have already sprung up in the neighbourhood in the past few years. Adding to the family-friendly vibe, a proposed ice rinkand community centre directly adjacent to the Plaza of Nations would include a child care centre, effectively filling the area with joyful laughter of young kids.

Despite the casino’s minimal impact in the eight years since gamblers deposited their first coins in its slots, it hasn’t been without its opponents.

In April 2011, Vancouver City Council rejected a $500 million proposal by the B.C. Lottery Corporation (BCLC), Edgewater owners Paragon Gaming and the B.C. Pavillion Corp. to expand the casino and moved it to an empty lot next to the BC Place Stadium, across the street from its current location. Instead, council agreed Paragon could move the facility to the BC Place land — but any increase in the facility’s existing 600 slot machines was strictly forbidden. Either way, the Edgewater must vacate the current location soon, as plans for developing the area get underway.

If it had gone ahead, the expansion would have encompassed two hotels 1,500 slot machines and 150 tables, making it the largest casino in Western Canada. The BCLC suggested it would have generated more than $231 million a year in revenue, of which the city would receive about $11 million. However, some estimates were as high as $390 million and $17 million respectively.

Despite the economic benefits, the majority of the more than 140 homeowners, officers, and public health officials who spoke up during the public hearings opposed the mega casino. Police purported that a larger casino would attract more crime, citing a rash of loansharking incidences following the opening of the River Rock Casino in nearby Richmond.

Weighing in on the side of public health, Vancouver medical health officer John Carsley told the Globe and Mail that there is no definitive evidence to support claims that a casino would contribute to a public health risk. But, he said, there is also no evidence to confirm it won’t. He advised the city err on the side of caution and vote against the deal.

Meanwhile, BCLC maintained that a casino expansion would not increase the public health risk, while Paragon Gaming touted the job-creating power of a larger gambling house.

It was an impassioned debate. 

And yet, the majority of the concerns about crime and public health — and all the studies waved in the faces of councillors — seemed only to target gambling in general rather than the expansion specifically.

Moreover, in all many hours of discussion and all the many articles published, no one addressed why, when these issues have been absent from the Edgewater for years, they suddenly crop up at a larger casino across the street.

Vancouver Police spokesperson Const. Brian Montague said the Edgewater isn’t a problem area for police.

“There’s nothing in particular I can think of that causes a concern for us (about the Edgewater),” he said on Monday.

“We definitely do get calls there, and some of them are related to the casino and some of them are not.”

So why, then, were about 39 percent of Vancouverites so outraged at the prospect of a larger downtown casino? The answer may be an aesthetic one. 

Despite the seriousness of these concerns about crime and public health, they paled in importance to the complaint that a mega casino wouldn’t jive with the city’s identity as a “green” and livable city.

“The single greatest objection cited by citizens at the public hearing and in letters to Vancouver Council is that this casino on the scale proposed, and in the site chosen is not in keeping with Vancouver’s character as a city,” read a report, authored by the anti-casino coalition Vancouver Not Vegas, titled The Case for Opposing the Expansion of the Edgewater Casino.

City Council’s ruling party, Vision Vancouver, which is headed by Superman doppelganger Mayor Gregor Robertson, aims to make the West Coast metropolis the greenest in the world by 2020. That’s why, Robertson and his VV-controlled council have pushed through projects like separated bike lanes and studies on how to connect the whole metropolitan area with world-class transit. 

Casinos like the Edgewater don’t really support a green city plan, with their jackpot sirens, surveillance cameras, air conditioning and overhead lighting operating 24 hours a day. 

Nor would an expanded casino fit with Vancouver’s title as Canada’s most livable city. Problem gamblers and loan sharks stumbling out of the casino at 4:00 in the morning don’t really scream “healthy community.”

So as the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. makes its pitch for a downtown casino, Vancouver’s anti-casino crusade provides an interesting case study for Torontonians to consider. In fact, Vancouver Not Vegas co-founder Sandy Garossino will be presenting The Case Against a Casino in Downtown Toronto alongside Councillor Adam Vaughan to the Empire Club of Canada on March 5.

___

Elizabeth Hames is on Twitter. Follow her @elizabethhames

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