Could Saanich host a casino? And if so, could it end up in Uptown?
The search for answers to those questions starts Monday, when Saanich council considers a notice of motion from Coun. Susan Brice.
The motion asks staff to update a 2016 report that Saanich prepared as part of its response to a provincial request for expressions of interest from the British Columbia Lottery Corporation (BCLC), after it had short-listed Saanich along Victoria to host a new South Island casino.
The BCLC announced in July 2019 that it preferred Victoria ahead of Saanich to host a second gaming facility in the region, an announcement Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps called “good news” at the time. Victoria has since announced that it is no longer interested in hosting a casino, creating a potential opportunity for Saanich.
Local officials, however, have been quick to stress the exploratory nature of their interest in light of concerns that casinos in the Lower Mainland had “unwittingly served as laundromats for the proceeds of organized crime,” according to a March 2018 report from lawyer and RCMP veteran Peter German.
“This [notice of] motion just asks for the former report to be updated,” said Brice, when asked about concerns that organized criminals have used casinos to launder money.
Mayor Fred Haynes also stressed the exploratory nature. “It’s not to be interpreted as an outright strong support for a casino,” he said earlier.
That said, a closer look at provincial and and municipal documents including the 2016 report points toward the possibilities and pitfalls of hosting a casino.
According to the report, Saanich identified Uptown as the “most appropriate” location for either a full-service casino or a community gaming centre. The northern edge of the Tillicum-Burnside area might also be a “good candidate” for such facilities, it reads.
It also frames any future gaming facility as part of a larger complex. “Given the geographic location of Saanich and existing facilities within the region, a hotel and/or dedicated theatre/performance venue would likely be the best for the community,” it reads.
But the obstacles are not insignificant. The report notes that hosting a gaming facility would not only require a development permit process and a rezoning, but also a public consultation.
Coun. Judy Brownoff said in 2016 that a gaming facility would require “intensive public feedback” if the province chooses Saanich.
The process could be divisive, with some community members potentially following the arguments of then-councillor Leif Wergeland. He said in June 2016 that council had previously opposed the expansion of legalized gambling. According to minutes, Wergeland said it would be inappropriate for Saanich to “support anything that support social ill” while raising money for the municipality.
His colleagues at the time sounded less concerned about this aspect while noting the economic benefits of a gaming facility.
The numbers — at least on paper — speak for themselves. In 2017-18, commercial gambling in the province generated revenues of $3.3 billion dollars, according to the Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch. Of those, $108.8 million flowed to local municipalities hosting gambling facilities.
Kelowna (with a population comparable to Saanich’s) directly received a total of $4.17 million dollars from the two gaming facilities that it hosts.