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neighbourhood watch

Terry McNeice is hoping that a casino resort developer comes up snake eyes in a project planned for suburban Surrey.

The president of the South Surrey Rate Payers Association argues that the developer's plans to build a B.C. gambling complex near the Canada-U.S. border are ill-conceived.

In February, Gateway Casinos & Entertainment Ltd. bought the rural property on the east side of Highway 99, less than two kilometres from the Peace Arch border crossing. For Mr. McNeice, who lives with his family in a Surrey home near the proposed casino site, the city is gambling with its already dicey reputation.

"There have been endless jokes for years going on about Surrey, but the city has done a lot over the years to improve its image," he said. "The reputation came from some areas in North Surrey that were rundown, like Whalley and Newton – drug dealers, prostitution, crime and low incomes. The image is still there."

Mr. McNeice sees a tale of two Surreys – north of Highway 10 has some gritty parts, while portions south have their share of rural charms, including a farm for llamas and horses. He notes that some South Surrey residents prefer to tell the uninitiated that they live in neighbouring White Rock to avoid the lingering, but unfair and unwarranted, stigma of living in Surrey. "Having the casino in South Surrey would be a step backward," Mr. McNeice said.

Gateway paid $32-million to acquire the land at 10th Avenue and 168th Street from a private seller. The deal consisted of $22-million up front in cash and the rest to be paid in shares, if rezoning and other approvals are granted, according to securities filings.

Privately owned Gateway runs the Cascades Casino in nearby Langley, as well as the Grand Villa Casino in Burnaby and the Starlight Casino in New Westminster. The company also oversees "community gaming centres" in Mission and Squamish.

American tourism has slumped over the past decade, and the casino complex would not present Surrey in a favourable light, Mr. McNeice said, adding that Great Canadian Gaming Corp. already has the Fraser Downs casino in Cloverdale to serve the area.

"Americans are going to cross the border, and off to the right-hand side will be a humungous complex. It will be an absolute eyesore for Surrey. Is this how Surrey wants to identify itself? Welcome to Surrey and large parking lots," he said.

He stresses that a casino proposed by Paragon Gaming Inc. for downtown Vancouver was rejected last year by city council, so he wonders why Surrey should embrace any project that could fuel gambling addictions and crime. "Go ahead and build the rest of the complex with the hotel, convention centre, four restaurants and two pubs. Our argument is no casino," Mr. McNeice said.

The casino component, however, is what would make the economics work in South Surrey for both Gateway and BC Lottery Corp., the provincial Crown corporation that stands to reap millions of dollars a year in revenue, said James Chen, Gateway's general counsel and corporate secretary. A Gateway-operated bingo hall in Surrey's Newton neighbourhood has been expanded to include temporary slot machines, but the South Surrey complex would eventually take over the Newton hall's gaming licence, Mr. Chen said.

Gateway's South Surrey project will help keep British Columbians from crossing into Washington state to visit three nearby U.S. casinos, added Tanya Gabara, Gateway's community relations liaison. "We're proud of what we've designed," she said.

The B.C. government has become increasingly dependent on gambling. "Gaming profit" in the B.C. government's coffers swelled from $239-million in 1992 to $1.1-billion in 2011.

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts will be keeping an open mind about Gateway's proposal, which is slated to go to a public hearing in early 2013. "The process for this has been going on since 2009 in terms of rezoning of the site. Gateway became involved in February of this year," said Ms. Watts, who lives in South Surrey.

She said her municipality has many positive attributes, no matter whether it's north or south of Highway 10, and the question is whether the proposed South Surrey entertainment complex will be an asset overall. "Whether it's a casino or homeless shelter or halfway house, they are always difficult for the community," Ms. Watts said. "We need to listen to all the residents."