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Rendering of BC Place and the proposed entertainment complex to be built on PavCo-owned land adjacent to BC Place. (Globe files/Globe files)
Rendering of BC Place and the proposed entertainment complex to be built on PavCo-owned land adjacent to BC Place. (Globe files/Globe files)

Vancouver rejects proposed big casino in downtown core Add to ...

Vancouver council has delivered a sharp rebuke to the province’s lottery corporation by killing a proposed big new casino in the downtown core – and instituting a moratorium on any new gambling until the B.C. Lottery Corporation does a better job dealing with problem gambling and money laundering.

The unanimous vote to deny the casino expansion prompted exhilaration from the group of fierce opponents who coalesced two months ago. But it stunned and disappointed people from the casino company, the lottery corporation and the B.C. Pavilion Corp., for whom the casino’s lease payments for the land next to BC Place was supposed to help pay for $563-million in renovations.

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Representatives from all three said they were “disappointed” but had nothing else to say for the moment.

However, Tourism Minister Pat Bell issued a conciliatory statement, saying the province’s “renewed government” was going to take a “fresh look at options to develop this property.” He said he has directed PavCo to work with the city to make sure any future decision aligns with what the city wants.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson led the way on the casino rejection.

“Enabling the largest casino in Western Canada in our downtown doesn't fit with Vancouver's global brand as the world's most livable city, the green capital, and hotbed for innovation from clean and digital technology to resource management,” he said.

His motion came after seven days of public hearings and hundreds of public speeches and e-mails opposing the $500-million proposal.

Non-Partisan Association Councillor Suzanne Anton said she would have been prepared to approve a smaller expansion, and she worried aloud about what the city might be losing by rejecting the complex.

But none of the other councillors had similar qualms. They said they were convinced by several factors: opposition from the arts community; experiences of places like Macau, which lost its sense of identity as gambling overtook the city; and their own sense that people in Vancouver didn’t like the idea of the city’s future being decided in Victoria.

“It was a complete contradiction for what people want in the heart of Vancouver,” said Councillor Geoff Meggs, who delivered the strongest criticism of the province’s decision making about the city “behind closed doors.”

The decision will have a significant financial impact for the province. Casino company Paragon had promised to pay $6-million a year for 70 years to lease the land, if the expansion was approved.

As well, the province gets 52 per cent of gross revenues at all casinos. If the new casino’s revenues had jumped from the current $120-million to $390-million, as the most optimistic projections forecast, the province would have benefited to the tune of an extra $140-million a year.

The casino saga was confusing to many in the public, and even councillors, because of the way it appeared to generate no interest for nearly a year before the hearings.

The story began in 2004, when the council of the day (dominated by the Coalition of Progressive Electors) agreed – amid much controversy – to allow the Edgewater casino to set up at the Plaza of Nations, as part of a move to close down other city casinos and consolidate Vancouver’s gambling in one place.

The company operating Edgewater went bankrupt and the licence and operation were taken over by Paragon, with ongoing warnings from council that it would need to find a new site by 2013.

Land around BC Place was rezoned in 2008, with a reference to a “major casino” being an approved land use. But no one paid much attention to those words because it was assumed they meant allowing the existing casino to move across the street.

Around the same time, premier Gordon Campbell announced the province would renovate BC Place and put on a new roof. It wasn’t until March, 2010, though, that he announced a major casino proposal for the land around the stadium, billed as a development that would pay the stadium’s renovation bills.

Almost no one registered protests in the June open houses on the proposal.

But the arts community, which had seen their share of gambling proceeds cut drastically in the past two years, started mobilizing opposition in the fall of 2010. Within weeks, the arts groups, joined by resident groups, had generated massive support for an anti-casino petition.

More than 200 people signed up to speak at public hearings. Although casino employees were a big part of that number, the opponents covered every political base in the city, as well as medical health officers, police, an ex-judge, and bar and restaurant operators.

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