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Vancouver to have one last chance to weigh in on proposal for BC's largest casino

Once completed, the redeveloped stadium will add a new look to the downtown skyline.

A ring of newly-built towers soar high above the top of BC Place at the foot of the Cambie Street Bridge. Each of them is connected by cable to a large central structure, forming a giant spider-web where the once unmistakable white dome used to sit. The $563 million renovations - including a $485 million retractable roof - are part of a project to revitalize the aging stadium. Now, in a vote that will most likely take place this fall, city council must decide whether the redevelopment of BC Place will include the addition of the largest casino in the province.

The proposal would see the relocation of Edgewater Casino, currently housed in the nearby Plaza of Nations, to a 680,000 square foot entertainment complex attached to BC Place. The new casino will more than triple the number of slot machines - from 493 to 1, 500 - and include an additional 85 table games. Two hotels, with a total of 620 rooms, are also expected to be included in the development. The design plans show a grand, futuristic and Las-Vegas inspired complex.

"The business plan for the casino is tightly linked to the stadium. People will come in, watch sporting events, and do some gambling," Councillor Geoff Meggs told VO in an interview.

"The argument that I’ve heard is that this will target an international audience, rather than a local one. I’m not sure if that’s going to be the reality," he said.

An article posted by Paragon Development Ltd., the Nevada-based company that has put forth the casino proposal, refers to Canada's recently relaxed visa policies with China as a potential customer market. "Vancouver expects to increase its Chinese visitation by 50 percent next year, which could create a customer market for Paragon’s casino."

Back in March, PavCo, the Crown corporation that runs BC place, announced that a 70-year lease agreement for the building site had been reached with Paragon Development Ltd., who operate the existing Edgewater. But under municipal zoning regulations, the area cannot be used for a casino.

There will be public hearings to determine whether to override existing rules, Councillor Suzanne Anton told VO in an interview.

"Members of the public can come in and say 'We love this place! We hate this place!' And then council will look at the whole package. It’s only when this application is granted that we can go ahead with the whole project," Anton said.

Neither Meggs nor Anton could specify an exact date for the public hearings. Paragon did not return VO's request for further information.

But Meggs said that the developers will likely bring the proposal to council before the new year. "They are working back from the day that they want to have the Lions in there for the Grey Cup. They’re not going to finish the casino in time for the Grey Cup but they have to finish the casino by 2013."

The lease for the current Edgewater casino in the Plaza of Nations runs out in 2013.

"Very soon we’ll be on the brink of 2011 so they’ll have 24 months to build a massive casino. They still believe that it can be done. What I have been told is that because of the 2013 expiry of the lease they have to have their approval by 2011."

This means that citizens in Vancouver will have to make a very quick decision about whether to expand gaming significantly, Meggs said.

The councillor said that the social impact of the casino would likely be one of the controversies that will be discussed during the public hearings. "I think that the public is always concerned about casino gaming. There’s a view that gaming is especially exploitative of people who suffer from gaming addiction. It’s not clear whether BC Lottery Corporation has a grip on that."

"There’s no one out there, in my view, who believes that casino gaming is how you should build a province. It spends money but it doesn’t generate wealth," Meggs said.

So far, public opposition to the casino proposal has been less heated than expected.

"Four or five years ago, we were at the beginning of a major phase of expansion by a government that promised it wouldn’t do expansion. It may be that people feel that there’s no hope because there’s already a casino there. There haven't been the problems that people expected with either the track or the casino so perhaps that’s changed their minds."

Still, the councillor said that he would be surprised if it wasn't very controversial.

In 2005, when the proposal for Edgewater Casino at the Plaza of Nations emerged, a majority of people in Vancouver were opposed. Council wrestled with their decision, given public sentiment.

However, the casino developers also planned to create hundreds of jobs, including a number specifically for marginalized people who would have otherwise had difficulty finding employment. A broadbased group of advocates came forward to lobby for the casino because they were committed to creating this type of workplace and in the end the proposal was passed, said Meggs.

Soon, council will once again be faced with the decision about whether to expand gaming.

"I’ve never been wildly a proponent of casinos. First of all they’re a bit of a tax on the poor, unless you’re a wealthy tourist that comes in. The traditional NPA position was that we never wanted casinos, and we held out on them for years," Anton said.

When there was a change in government in 2002 and Larry Campbell became mayor, the door was open to casinos, she said.

"I'm [not saying] that I'm going to vote either for or against the project, but if it does go ahead...I’d like to see that it be somewhere quite nice," Anton said.

"I’d like it to be somewhere I’d like to go on an evening, to know that there’s a nice restaurant there. People like to go to Las Vegas, not just because they like to gamble but because it’s a fun atmosphere."

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