Delta residents could be dropping a few bucks in the penny slots in their own backyard in a couple of years.
After several months of lightly attended open houses and civic committee meetings, the proposal by Gateway Casinos and Entertainment Ltd. to build a $70-million casino/hotel complex at the Delta Town & Country site will be going to Delta council for consideration on Monday. If given preliminary approval, it would then head to a public hearing, likely in June.
The casino company is hoping final approval will be granted not long afterward so it can begin an ambitious construction schedule this fall. A grand opening of the yet-to-be-named complex at the junction of highways 17A and 99 in Ladner would take place in 2020.
The complex, which in addition to the casino and 116-room hotel would include restaurants and meeting spaces, would be in a high visibility location, marking a further change in South Delta’s landscape following the addition of malls at the Tsawwassen First Nation a couple of years ago.
While the application still must receive civic approval, the City of Delta wholeheartedly jumped at the opportunity to land a casino after the B.C. Lottery Corporation invited Surrey, Delta and the TFN to submit expressions of interest as Gateway looks to relocate Surrey’s Newton Community Gaming Centre.
Having already voted down a proposed destination casino a few years earlier, Surrey council declined, while the TFN and Delta both submitted expressions of interest.
Delta’s submission was clearly the keenest, identifying the Delta Town & Country Inn as a site that’s ideally suited as “a complete entertainment complex” because of its distance from residential neighbourhoods and access to major transportation corridors.
It’s a far cry from almost two decades earlier when Delta politicians were opposed to the idea of the province’s casino expansion plans as well as a proposed destination casino and bingo facility at the TFN, which at the time would have partnered with Lady Luck Entertainment.
That attitude changed long ago in other Lower Mainland cities that are now raking in big revenues with their casinos, including neighbouring Richmond, where hundreds came out for a public hearing in the late 1990s to voice opposition to expanded gaming, only for a very few to come out to a hearing just a few years later for the proposed River Rock Casino Resort.
Gateway, which is embarking on an ambitious expansion plan, operates 26 gaming facilities across Canada, including the Grand Villa in Burnaby and Starlight in New Westminster.
Described as a "modest sized" casino, the proposed Delta gaming facility would start off with 500 slot machines as well as 24 gaming tables and up to six e-tables. After six months, a review would take place but any substantial change to the gaming equation would require city approval.
In late 2016, even before Delta was chosen by BCLC, the City of Richmond sent a response to the lottery corporation and Delta suggesting that any casino in Delta be located a sufficient distance away from Richmond. Much to the annoyance and frustration of Delta council members, their Richmond counterparts conveyed concern about the potential impact a Delta casino would have on revenues at the highly lucrative River Rock.
BCLC also initially had reservations about Delta’s preferred location, however, Delta stuck to its position that the Delta Town & Country was the only suitable site. BCLC later agreed, claiming it wouldn’t have a negative impact on Richmond’s casino.
Local host governments receive a 10 per cent net share of the revenues that go to the province.
According to the B.C government, Richmond received $12.7 million for the 2017/2018 fiscal year, down from over $16 million the previous year. When the River Rock opened in 2004, the city received $7.5 million. Between 2005 and 2010, the city received about $12 million per year, but by 2014 that number had jumped to $20.1 million.
A point made clear during the public consultation in Delta was that Deltans going to the River Rock helped fund the Richmond Oval and other big Richmond projects.
However, those lofty numbers won’t be coming Delta’s way as its gaming facility will be smaller than the likes of River Rock, Grand Villa or Starlight.
The lottery corporation told the Optimist it estimates revenue coming to Delta will be at the top end of its initial annual $1.5 million to $3 million projection based on the casino opening with 500 slot machines, a figure BCLC has termed as a conservative estimate. The proposed Delta casino would be built to house up to 600 slot machines to accommodate potential growth.
"It's not just gambling. It's not just entertainment. It's the benefit that goes back to the communities," Chris Fairclough, manager of stakeholder engagement for BCLC, told the Delta Chamber of Commerce earlier this year.
An issue raised by those opposed is whether a casino would simply see money currently spent in the community being funneled into gambling, while another concern has been whether a casino would impact vulnerable people such as seniors or problem gamblers.
About 4,000 adults from Delta are registered to play at casinos elsewhere in the region, so a built-in market is already there, according the BCLC, which states a Delta casino would also serve a wider market south of the Fraser River.
Fairclough said about 3.3 per cent of gamblers have "some issues" when it comes to gambling, which is why BCLC has taken a number of measures, including community-based counselling. He said the lottery corporation's emphasis is on player health and "positive play." BCLC has invested in gambling research at UBC and from those studies the GameSense strategy was developed, he explained.
Also, the lottery corporation noted the proposed casino/hotel complex would be an enjoyable entertainment experience that’s more than just gambling.
Brad Desmarais, BCLC's vice-president of casino and community gaming said BCLC owns and maintains the slot machines as well as designs the casino layouts. He said the goal is create "a pleasant environment" for players.
Unlike Las Vegas casinos, which are destination facilities, Desmarais noted the Delta casino would be geared for a regional market as a form of entertainment. People will want to come back time and time again, including those who don't even gamble, he added.
Crime has been perhaps the biggest issue for those opposed to a Delta casino. Media reports last year exposed the Richmond casino, operated by Great Canadian Gaming Corporation, being implicated in high-roller money laundering. Attorney General David Eby commissioned Peter German, a former RCMP senior officer, to come up with recommendations to combat the problem.
The B.C. Lottery Corporation already implemented German’s interim recommendations requiring casino patrons to complete a source of funds declaration for cash deposits over $10,000, while all chip transactions using cash and bank drafts over $10,000 a day must include a receipt that shows the financial institution and account from which the currency was obtained.
Gateway CAO Jag Nijjar told the Optimist, "If you come with some money and you play a little bit, you can't get a cheque for the money you came in with. I'd have to be able to verify through video surveillance or the supervisor that you actually played and won. If you come in with $10,000, you're going to walk out with that same cash," he said. "Most of our large players, the legitimate players, know the rules and come in with bank draft anyways."
Delta police Chief Neil Dubord said during a recent meeting of several civic committees at Harris Barn that the RCMP's integrated illicit gambling team has a good handle when it comes to organized crime trying to launder money, so the major concern in Delta will be "traffic, traffic, traffic."
Gateway notes it has a traffic management plan and that the peak times for business likely won’t coincide with rush hour.
Among those who expressed support for Delta having its own gaming facility are residents on social media, noting the city stands to lose potential revenue if a casino ended up at the TFN.
During one of the open houses Fairclough explained BCLC always takes a close look at applications that don’t work out, so if Delta rejects the proposal, there would be another review.
“If we determined that it was still a legitimate opportunity, we would look at either redoing it with the City of Delta or look at the Tsawwassen First Nation,” he explained.
It remains to be seen if the TFN would go for a casino should Delta reject it as the First Nation’s government would have to decide if it wanted such a project. It would also have to go to the membership for approval.
Gateway’s plans don’t include a replacement for the tennis bubble that’s to be demolished along with the existing hotel. That situation has drawn the ire of tennis players who have written city hall, as well as to the Optimist, demanding such an amenity be required as part of any casino approval.
In January, the company hosted a meeting with the City of Delta and tennis stakeholders. Acting city manager Ken Kuntz said the city has no plans to build a tennis bubble elsewhere but would work with players on setting up a process that could see that goal realized.
It’s likely the tennis contingent that will be the loudest should the casino proposal be subject to a public hearing.
Meanwhile, saying the proposed casino is in the most ideal spot, Delta Town & Country Inn owner Ron Toigo noted that even if there was no casino application he would likely be taking a hard look at the future of the site. Toigo said he would not be involved with the project, other than leasing the site to Gateway.