COLUMN: Casino proponents in Surrey miss the mark

Surrey council made a well-reasoned decision in rejecting a casino licence for a proposed hotel and convention centre on 168 Street, near 8 Avenue and Highway 99.

The decision, made just after 2 a.m. on Saturday, came after an exhaustive public hearing that took up most of council’s time on Monday night (Jan. 14) and again Friday night. It was the longest public hearing in decades in Surrey.

The final vote was 5-4, with Mayor Dianne Watts casting the deciding vote. Also opposed were Couns. Bruce Hayne, Marvin Hunt, Judy Villeneuve and Mary Martin.

It is worth noting that all nine members of Surrey council were elected as part of the Surrey First slate in November 2011, and are generally in agreement on most items.

This was different, though. There were two solitudes of opinion and very little room for compromise.

The casino ignited a high firestorm of opposition from many nearby residents, the Semiahmoo First Nation and those who oppose expanded gambling. On the other side were business groups, which want a convention centre and entertainment centre in Surrey, BC Lottery Corporation, the provincial government and Gateway Casinos, the proponent.

As stated in this space before, a casino with an entertainment and conference centre could be a good thing for Surrey – but not in that location. A far better location would be Whalley, in the midst of being rebranded as Surrey City Centre. This point has been made by many who favour casinos in recent days.

Suggestions that the casino would, by being located near the border, attract many Americans north seem unrealistic. There are numerous casinos within an hour’s drive of the border. Many of them advertise extensively in Canada, and all are competing for the same crowd.

The mayor suggested after the vote that the arguments of those who oppose the casino were persuasive. Asked if they were NIMBYs, she said no. She believes the location was a key reason for the opposition.

Watts had supported rezoning of the property several years ago, and said Tuesday that her understanding was a hotel and convention centre would be built there, even without a casino. That seems highly unlikely now.

Provincial gambling minister Rich Coleman came out swinging after the decision, saying BCLC would not work with Surrey on another site. His petulance is surprising. He is campaign chair for a party which was first elected in 2001, and in that campaign vowed not to expand gambling.

Of course, the BC Liberals have done the exact opposite. The gambling scene in 2013 is completely different than what it was in 2001.

The truth is, the government is addicted to gambling revenue, and Coleman is upset that it won’t get quite as much as he had hoped.

The 5-4 split decision at council reflects both perspectives of the debate over gambling and the casino location.

My prediction is, there will be another proposal for a casino, entertainment and convention centre, somewhere in North Surrey, within the next three years. Surrey council will approve it, and all the amenities that the business community has called for will come to pass.

The new casino will be located close to transit, be closer to the urban areas of the Lower Mainland and in the midst of a growing hub. If it is located in Surrey City Centre, it will be far better for the city than any project in a rural area near the border could ever be.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

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