Views differ on casino cost

Surrey not likely to gain as much as initially thought

It seems to happen only a couple of times each decade, but a good number of Surrey residents woke up from their indifference to development in the city and got involved with a public hearing on moving a gaming licence to a South Surrey property.

It’s been many years since this many people – 192 to be exact – signed up to speak at a public hearing. There were 72 speakers at Monday’s hearing, and council plans to hear from the remaining 120 at a rare Friday night hearing.

It’s hard to say if this will have a long-lasting political effect. Most likely, it won’t.

Mayor Dianne Watts’ Surrey First coalition holds all nine seats on council and steamrollered all opponents in the November 2011 election. Watts has been a popular mayor and the election results showed her strong coattail effect on other Surrey First candidates.

There is no doubt that a good many residents of South Surrey have a problem with the casino – at least in that location. The issue of problem gambling was also raised Monday, and despite BC Lottery Corporation reassurances, the problem is far from under control. If it was, there wouldn’t be a number of lawsuits dealing with this exact issue underway right now.

The main feature of the casino and convention centre project that most people seem to agree on is the need for conference space and entertainment facilities in Surrey. There is a need.

However, is a rural South Surrey property the best location for such a facility? If city hall, Simon Fraser University, and other facilities need to be located in Whalley in order to turn it into Surrey City Centre, it seems that such a facility would be a natural fit there.

Anita Huberman, of the Surrey Board of Trade, and other business leaders say that the casino is a necessary part of such a facility – to help pay for it. There is certainly some truth to that, given other such facilities that are either part of or separate from casinos. At the same time, a city of more than 400,000 people is likely to support a first-class convention centre and entertainment complex quite strongly.

Many Surrey residents travel to other municipalities for such activities today. A facility here, if developed and located properly, would likely be quite successful right from the start.

The city isn’t likely to gain a lot of new revenue from a casino. This was the carrot used by BCLC and the provincial government a decade ago, but today there are simply too many of them in place, including Fraser Downs in Cloverdale.

It is likely that any new casino will simply see gamblers shifting the locale of their activities. The Richmond, Coquitlam, New Westminster and Langley casinos will likely feel the pinch.

In short, there are many disagreements about the value of a casino in Surrey.

This, after all, is the point under discussion at the hearing. The hearing is not dealing with the merits of a hotel, convention centre or entertainment complex, as zoning allows for that to go ahead on the 168 Street property.

Council members will have to think long and hard about which way they will vote at the conclusion off the hearing. Those who vote in favour will face some backlash in the next election, which is almost two years away, but it is unlikely they will lose their seats over this issue.

Those who oppose it will likely feel little political heat, as the most strident proponents are from Gateway Casinos, BC Lottery Corporation and business. Most of them don’t vote in civic elections in Surrey.

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