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Blackjack at the River Rock Casino in Richmond, B.C. June 11, 2009. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Blackjack at the River Rock Casino in Richmond, B.C. June 11, 2009. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Vancouver council has little reason to vote for casino proposal Add to ...

The proposal to expand Vancouver's current casino to triple its current size appears headed for defeat on Tuesday, as councillors weigh two giant negatives on the pro-and-con list.

First, there's no political win to accepting a casino expansion. And second, the city wouldn't gain much direct revenue from it either.

The only counterbalancing argument, sources say, is the risk that the province will be furious about the loss of up to $150-million a year in desperately needed new money from the expanded Edgewater casino run by Paragon.

That could lead to the city being told that it can't get money for housing or other initiatives because of that missing money.

But that threat, which was hinted at several times during former premier Gordon Campbell's reign, has receded as Premier Christy Clark works at setting a new course, say city hall sources.

"I think they're going to turn it down," says former Non-Partisan Association councillor Peter Ladner, who sat in that same hot seat himself twice in 2004, first when 600 new slot machines were approved for Hastings Park, and then when the new Edgewater casino was approved near BC Place.

"The biggest pressure we used to get is that it would bring jobs. But we voted for new slots at the Hastings Racetrack and those jobs seem to be in danger anyway." The slots never did bring in the customers expected, and there has been talk recently of shutting down the track.

This time, the financial gains appear to be much weaker, while the political downsides are significant.

Casino-expansion proponents have promoted the idea that the city will benefit to the tune of $17-million a year in revenue. But the most recent assessment from city staff says there are some doubts about Paragon's estimates of a future boom in casino revenues.

"In their recent national survey," says the April 5 memo, "HLT Advisory [a prominent casino consulting company]reported that only a small share of industry representatives in British Columbia expressed the view that there was room in the local market for more casinos." Only 14 per cent of those surveyed thought there was room to expand - a stark contrast to the "ambitious increases in market size" promised by Paragon's consultant, the memo says.

Underlying that is the reality that the city gets only 4 or 5 per cent of a casino's gross revenues, while the province gets 51.5 per cent.

The usual secondary argument is that, even if the city doesn't get direct money, it will benefit from a generally improved economy and new jobs. But the two groups who usually care most about that - labour unions and business groups - are divided or lukewarm.

Charles Gauthier, executive director of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, said his group expressed formal support. But, he said, his members don't feel it's a do-or-die decision, the way it did with the convention-centre expansion.

The Vancouver Hospitality Association, which represents a large group of bars and restaurants, has come out against the casino expansion, which includes two hotels and a cluster of bars and restaurants.

"Our concern is not the gambling, it's the fact that there could be 4,000 to 5,000 new liquor seats here, which is the same as all of the Granville entertainment district," said John Teti, an association member.

And while some local unions are pro-expansion, either to save casino jobs or create construction jobs, others are opposed, worried about the expansion's effect on racetrack jobs or critical of Paragon's employment track record.

Finally, on the political side of the equation, there's a wide spectrum of groups from right to left opposing the expansion, joined by medical health officers and members of various police forces.

That means a vote to reject doesn't run any risk of becoming a hot-button issue in the election campaign this fall. Instead, it's a sure bet to be popular.

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