Vancouver – A gleaming new casino festooned with big-screen TVs, a show lounge and 600 slot machines opens at 9 a.m. Friday at Hastings Racecourse.
The most controversial component of a CAD 40-million facelift for the 116-year-old track at Hastings Park, the 42,000-square-foot casino replaces the stark benches and concrete of the old lower grandstand with a bright glossy gambling house, a bar with live entertainment and restaurant service.
A temporary casino with 150 slot machines that opened last November at the track will close when the new casino opens its doors to the public.
The temporary facility has done strong business since the day it opened, according to Great Canadian Gaming representative Howard Blank.
„It was put in place just to give people a taste of what’s to come,“ Blank said.
„People definitely voted with their feet.“
The new slots, combined with live and video-feed horse racing, are expected to bring even more people to the racetrack, he said. But there will be no table games in the new casino.
The largest casinos in Metro Vancouver have about 1,000 slot machines.
For owner Great Canadian, the opening will be the end of a years-long odyssey of negotiations with the city, vocal community opposition and lengthy renovations.
The slot machines were approved by city council in 2004 after four days of vitriolic public hearings.
The city had opposed slots for many years as a matter of policy, but changed its position after neighbouring municipalities approved slots in casinos just outside the city and Vancouver’s casino revenue began to decline.
At the time, the city’s share of the take from five casinos without slots was about CAD 3.7 million per year.
City staff have estimated that Vancouver’s share of the revenue from slots at Hastings Racecourse alone could run as high as CAD 6 million.
The new casino is projected to gross CAD 21 million between Aug. 15, 2008, and March 31, 2009, according to the B.C. Lottery Corp. The existing 150 slot machines have grossed CAD 2.4 million since April 1.
The city also has a community benefits agreement with Great Canadian that includes payments of CAD 100,000 a year to a city-run legacy fund, CAD 500,000 a year for restoration work on Hastings Park and a local hiring program for the city’s northeast neighbourhoods.
The community group Hastings Park Conservancy has long objected to the installation of slots at the race track and launched court action to have the enabling bylaw quashed by the court, but lost. They appealed to the B.C. Supreme Court and lost again.
The conservancy has now taken its case — with the help of lawyer Derek Creighton — to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The court agrees to hear only about 20 per cent of cases filed, „so we are hopeful,“ said conservancy board member David Bornman.
The court could take another three months to decide whether to review the case, he said. „We could yet see those slot machines removed from the park.“
The fight is being funded by donations from people in the community and „the generosity of our lawyer,“ Bornman said.
Bornman dismissed the benefit of increased revenue for the city as „short-term.“
About 80 per cent of the people who go to casinos in the Lower Mainland come from the immediate area around each casino, Bornman said.
„Sucking money out of the neighbourhood is not a benefit even if some of that money goes to improve the city’s bottom line.“
For Great Canadian, the opening comes as sweet relief.
„We’ve been working on this for so many years that it’s nice to finally see it come to fruition,“ Blank said.
Great Canadian purchased Hastings Entertainment, which runs the race track, in 2004.
Great Canadian believes that the combination of live horse racing, off-track betting and a casino will be a strong draw to local gamblers and tourists.