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The Globe and Mail

River Rock: More than a house of gambling

Howard Blank, VP Corporate Communications for the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation, at the River Rock Casino February 22, 2013.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Part of The Big Gamble, a series examining British Columbia's complicated relationship with casinos.

It once looked as if River Rock was destined to remain a developer's pipe dream.

A proposal to build a massive resort and casino in Richmond in the 1990s faced strong political opposition at city hall. In 1998, Richmond councillors voted against the expansion of Casino Richmond, the city's lone casino, and to prohibit the development of any others.

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But a new city council approved the development to replace Casino Richmond on an expanded site, and the massive resort complex opened its casino floor in June, 2004.

Today, it's the province's biggest casino resort – on a typical weekend, River Rock will have upwards of 25,000 people on its property.

Richmond mayor Malcolm Brodie, a city councillor from 1996 to 2001, said he opposed the resort for many years.

"I believed what we were doing was creating a place for problem gaming, encouraging problem gaming, and also that crime and safety would be an issue as well. Those were my reasons for opposing it," he said.

But Mr. Brodie now speaks highly of the resort, praising River Rock for helping finance Brighouse Station on the Canada Line, which opened in 2009 and is connected directly to the resort.

Mr. Brodie says he finds himself at River Rock at least once a month for community events in the theatre. He says it is now a Richmond institution.

"If I knew then what I know now, I would have voted to approve it," he said. "First of all, I see the finished product, the hotel entertainment complex that they've built, and it is really first class. … It generates a lot of interest in Richmond and a lot of excitement in Richmond."

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The reason for the casino's success, according to its owners, is simple: The place has become much more than a house of gambling.

"Ideally, you want people spending some time at the casino, you want them buying a room, going to a show, spending money at the spa. We want to give them a rounded experience," said Howard Blank, vice-president of media, entertainment and responsible gaming for Great Canadian Gaming Corp., River Rock's parent company.

"River Rock comes [to the] top of mind when you think of casinos in B.C."

Gambling, of course, is the biggest money maker for River Rock, generating far more than any other casino in the province.

According to British Columbia Lottery Corporation figures from 2011-12, River Rock brought in $301-million from its 1,006 slot machines and 112 gaming tables; the next biggest revenue-generator was Grand Villa Casino in Burnaby, which took in $177-million.

But the resort also has four restaurants, an international food court, a coffee shop, nearly 400 hotel rooms, a fitness room, a spa, an indoor pool and a 1,000-seat theatre. According to River Rock's 2011 financial statements, the resort generated $35.6-million from hospitality.

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River Rock's theatre – home to Live at the Rock events – is a case study in what Mr. Blank calls River Rock's "seamless" business model. World class entertainers perform: B.B. King will play on Friday night; Mike Tyson's one-man show, Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth, will be there next weekend; and Penn and Teller the weekend after.

They're big name acts, but Mr. Blank said that, after paying artists or performers, River Rock will often make only a small profit, in some cases nothing.

"It's more important for us to bring 1,000 people on our property that will come enjoy a show," he said. "They'll eat, they'll have beverages, they'll go into the casino – they'll spend their dollars on our property."

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