Editorial: Casinos a two-edged sword for municipalities

Saanich Mayor Fred Haynes wants to bring a casino to his municipality.

He cites the revenue-raising potential, which might be in the range of $2.5 million to $3 million a year. Coun. Susan Brice says she is backing the proposal.

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There is much to be said for the idea, but there are also points of concern.

The mayor notes that 75 per cent of revenues collected by Saanich come from homeowners. Expanding contributions from the business community would help ease that burden.

In addition, Haynes believes it might be possible to broaden the project to include a hotel, restaurants and an entertainment complex.

How realistic this is may be open to question. The capital region already has a casino — Elements in View Royal — which contributes between $3 million and $4 million a year in tax revenues.

View Royal Mayor David Screech has stated that the lottery corporation, which must issue a licence, has said that any additional gaming centres would have to be small enough not to interfere with the casino in his municipality.

That might mean, according to Screech, a casino in ­Saanich with no more than 200 slot machines. Whether that would be large enough to attract the additional business ­ventures Haynes has in mind is questionable.

Nevertheless, the ultimate decision is up to the lottery corporation. And that agency has said that an additional gaming facility in the capital region would be attractive, both to residents, and visitors to the community.

The concerns arise from disclosures of massive money-laundering schemes at casinos in the Lower Mainland, the River Rock Casino in particular.

A commission set up to examine the revelations, under Associate Chief Justice of the B.C. Supreme Court ­Austin Cullen, has heard troubling reports, and more are yet ­coming in.

Among the revelations are that during one seven-day period, one individual bought chips worth $1.8 million at the River Rock Casino, mainly in small bills, with no questions asked.

Cullen has also heard that oversight of casino ­operations, spread between the RCMP, the province’s gaming branch, the lottery corporation and casino security, basically ­collapsed due to infighting.

It’s apparent that the lure of a cash bonanza blinded both government and casino managers to the obvious presence of gang-related activity.

The commission isn’t due to report its findings until later this year. However, enough evidence has been ­collected so far that it’s apparent casinos, unless scrupulously ­supervised, are a tempting target for organized crime.

There is, to be fair, another side to this argument. ­Experience, both in the U.S. and Canada, has suggested that the introduction of legalized gambling reduces the illicit variety, which is even more strongly associated with gang operations.

And smaller casinos, of the kind likely to take shape in Saanich if approval is given, should be manageable.

Nevertheless, this is an occasion where the local ­residents must have a voice. Brice has said that if a casino is set up, it will likely have to be as far away from View Royal as ­possible. That probably means in East Saanich, somewhere between the municipal hall and the University of Victoria.

Is that a good fit for what is largely a residential ­community? Does a casino belong anywhere near the gates of a university?

We sympathize with the need of local municipalities to repair their revenue bases, after the damage inflicted by the COVID-19 crisis. And any new source of employment, other things being equal, is to be welcomed.

But the mayor and his colleagues must approach this decision with caution. That doesn’t just mean ensuring the proper oversight and security measures are in place before the project proceeds.

It means gaining the trust and support of the community as a whole, and in particular, those residents most directly affected.

For let’s be clear. Casinos, for all their revenue potential, are a two-edged sword.

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