Paragon inches closer to building downtown casino

Development Permit Board approves plan with conditions

A Las Vegas-based company is one step closer to building a $535-million casino complex adjacent to B.C. Place Stadium after city staff approved Monday a preliminary development application.

The development permit board, which comprises four senior city staff members, approved Paragon Holdings’ plan with two main conditions related to addressing problem gambling and ensuring the complex meets high environmental design standards.

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“We’re going to be cooperative and do everything that we can to work with the city,” said Tamara Hicks, director of corporate affairs and strategic communications for Paragon, which operates the Edgewater Casino at the Plaza of Nations.

Paragon’s plan is to relocate its 600 slot machines and 75 table games from Edgewater to a new site at 39 Smithe St., which is a vacant lot adjacent to B.C. Place Stadium.

The new casino will be spread over two floors and be part of a complex that includes hotels of 15 and 25 storeys, a conference centre, five restaurants, a gym, a spa and five levels of underground parking.

Paragon’s application received approval after the permit board and its seven advisory panel members heard from nearly 20 speakers, many of whom urged members to return the proposal to city council for review.

In April 2011, city council voted unanimously to reject Paragon’s initial proposal, which called for 1,500 slots and 150 games tables. Council, however, gave Paragon the option to relocate to 39 Smithe St. with its current complement of slots and tables.

At issue for speaker Ian Pitfield, a former B.C. Supreme Court judge and member of the Vancouver Not Vegas! coalition, was the new casino will have double the floor space of Edgewater — from 37,000 sq. feet to 72,000.

“I have no doubt, quite frankly, that if council had been told in April 2011 that the size of the casino with 600 slots and 75 gaming tables was going to be doubled from 37,000 sq. feet to 72,000 sq. feet, there would have been a resounding rejection to that suggestion,” Pitfield told the board.

“With respect, this aspect of the developer’s application has all of the appearances of being a cleverly contrived and disguised mechanism to ensure that some day, somehow council’s prohibition against the expansion of gambling in this city will be overcome.”

John Cahill, vice-president of planning for Paragon, told the board his company did not request all 114,000 sq. feet for a new casino, which is allowed under the bylaw.

Cahill said the Edgewater Casino site, which is the former Enterprise Hall from Expo 86, was never built to house a casino, which he described as a “slot house” with densely packed machines and tables.

“The 72,000 sq. foot gaming floor is the minimum size floor we need to properly offer the gaming kind of presentation that will meet the high expectations of our guests,” Cahill said.

“People who live in Vancouver in the highrises and dine in all the restaurants and stay in the four and five-star hotels — all these people have very high standards for quality and service. And when they come to our casino, they want to have a high quality entertainment experience, which you simply can’t offer at Edgewater.”

Though the board approved the application in principle, Paragon still has to meet final approval by the city’s director of planning Brian Jackson and is subject to council’s approval of the final form of development.

Jackson, who is a member of the development permit board, approved the development permit in principle but addressed the speakers’ concerns related to problem gambling.

“The issues brought up today are horrific, in terms of the effect of gambling on people’s lives,” he said. “I have a friend in California who lost everything to gambling in casinos in Las Vegas — house, car, wife, children, everything.”

Jackson successfully recommended conditions imposed on Paragon to include submitting a formal response prepared by a certified professional with experience in gambling addiction to the 17 recommendations outlined in provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall’s report on problem gambling.

Paragon now has to reveal the number of automatic teller machines permitted, the hours of operation, hours of liquor service, ensure there are signs and contact information on slots regarding dangers of gambling addiction and create a harm reduction strategy.

Kendall’s report, released in October, showed that even though gambling had generally declined between 2002 and 2007, the number of the people with a severe gambling problem increased from nearly 13,000 to 31,000.

At the same time, the annual gross gaming revenue for the provincial government steadily increased between 2002 and 2012, going from $1.1 billion to $2.1 billion.

Paragon also must build the complex to meet a minimum environmental building standard of LEED gold certification and meet at least six “optimizing energy performance points," which is equivalent to the city’s current policies for construction.

Resident Rod MacDonald, who told the board he is a recovering gambling addict, said the proposed measures don’t go far enough. MacDonald said having a sign on a slot machine with a telephone number for a resource line – one of the proposed safety measures – won’t have much affect on a gambling addict.

“There needs to be some measures put into place … that are more proactive and a little more in-your-face,” he said.

Sandy Garossino, a co-founder of Vancouver Not Vegas!, said after the meeting there was some “very good news” in the board’s decision.

“One of our major objectives was to get hours of operation onto the agenda, and it is clearly on,” she said.

Garossino said the conditions create the opportunity to develop a meaningful public health strategy for the future casino project.

But she remains concerned that the doubled floor space could lead to an increase in gaming tables and slot machines in future. She said legislation at the provincial level could change the gaming control act and remove the safeguards the city has put in place.

“The board and the city have overestimated their ability to rectify [the situation] if they do not confine the space,” she added.

Mayor Gregor Robertson issued a statement after the meeting, saying he will ask city staff to “identify further measures to prevent any expansion of gambling in the future on this site, including amendments to bylaws of the [Northeast False Creek Official Development Plan] that will restrict the allowable casino floor space to the existing proposal.”

Robertson, who will seek re-election in November 2014, has promised no expansion of gambling while he is mayor.

“It’s certainly not going to happen on my watch,” he told the Courier in an interview during the meeting.

Hastings Racecourse is the only other gambling facility in the city with slot machines.

mhowell@vancourier.com

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