As downtown Winnipeg prepares to welcome a new gaming centre this spring, Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst said she hopes the province will extend a similar option to the Wheat City.
"I think it’s a model that could certainly work very well in Brandon," Decter Hirst said. "If you want to think about it as an enhancement to existing entertainment options with the MTS Centre, we certainly could look at that kind of enhancement in our city."
Winnipeg’s new facility will be located on the second floor of Cityplace, near the MTS Centre. The 5,000-square-foot gaming centre will feature 140 slot machines, two poker tables and four blackjack tables.
It will be operated by Manitoba Lotteries but owned by True North Sports & Entertainment, owners of the Winnipeg Jets.
Susan Olynik, vice-president of corporate communications and social responsibility for Manitoba Lotteries, said they are branding it a "gaming centre" because of its unique scope and setting. To put it in perspective, casinos in Winnipeg, such as Club Regent, span roughly 170,000 square feet.
"It’s not a casino, I know some people are calling it that … it’s not a casino," Olynik said. "It’s an amenity that will be attached to the sports bar."
Olynik said Manitoba Lotteries has been supporting True North and the MTS Centre since 2004, and the gaming centre is viewed as an "extension" of their support.
Once it opens, 50 video lottery terminals currently in operation at the Tavern United pub and restaurant, which is adjacent to the MTS Centre, will be removed and become part of the gaming centre. True North receives gaming revenue from these VLTs currently.
Meanwhile, the idea of developing a casino in Brandon dates back many years. The city held plebiscites in both 2002 and 2008 on the casino question, which were both rejected.
More than a dozen years ago, the provincial NDP tasked a group called the First Nations Casino Project Selection Committee with the selection of up to five First Nations casino proposals in keeping with the findings of the Bostrom Report, which recommended casino and VLT developments as an economic development opportunity for Manitoba aboriginal bands.
In May, the city announced it had partnered with the Tribal Councils Investment Group, the business arm of seven tribal council groups representing 55 of Manitoba’s 61 First Nation bands, with the intent of securing the right to build a casino on city-owned land.
However, following months of discussion and outreach with the AMC and the province, Grand Chief Derek Nepinak publicly backed a scaled-down Spirit Sands Casino project south of Carberry in November after the organization’s gaming chiefs signed a management agreement with Hemisphere Gaming Inc.
Decter Hirst said the new gaming centre model may be a new avenue for Brandon to look into.
"It’s also a solid signal that the province is open to looking at different models besides aboriginal-controlled casinos," she said. "The leverage that True North, the MTS Centre and the Jets have with the province for getting them to consider new options, I would like to see extended to the City of Brandon."
Decter Hirst said if Brandon were to develop a gaming centre, downtown would be a natural location, depending on the size and scope.
"A hotel/entertainment complex has always been on the radar," she said.
Renaissance Brandon chair Shaun Cameron called the gaming centre an "interesting option."
"It’s something that could be an interesting opportunity," he said. "It’s something we’d obviously need to explore, the ramifications on a bigger scale ... but definitely anything that’s going to be an opportunity for us to enhance the downtown, we’re at least going to take a look at."
Brandon East NDP MLA Drew Caldwell said the city first needs to address the two previous plebiscites before it pursues a gaming centre or casino.
"The City of Brandon is on record through two public referendums that they do not want to have a casino," he said. "That’s the first thing that needs to be cleared up moving forward."
Caldwell said he personally is in support of a casino in Brandon, and if the city wants to engage the provincial government on this matter, "our doors are open."
"I’m very interested in advancing opportunities for economic development in Brandon," he said. "The top priority for me is to bring provincial resources to Brandon, to make our community a more vibrant, economically prosperous community."
Steve Ashton, the provincial minister responsible for Manitoba Lotteries, said the Winnipeg gaming centre is a "unique situation," and couldn’t say if it would be an option for Brandon down the road.
"Our main concern is two-fold, one is to respect the decision made by Brandon twice already in terms of the specific casino proposals that were put forward," Ashton said. "Our key issue as well would be to respect and be sure it didn’t have an impact at all on the new aboriginal casino in southwest Manitoba."
» email@example.com, with files from the Winnipeg Free Press