With all due respect to provincial minister Steve Ashton, the proposed Winnipeg gaming centre is not the unique situation that he says it is.
It’s at least not so unique that it couldn’t happen here in Brandon on a similar scale.
Earlier this week, the province announced that it would expand its financial support of True North Sports & Entertainment with a gaming centre — not a casino — linked both financially and physically to the MTS Centre.
As the Winnipeg Free Press reported, the 5,000-square-foot gaming centre is scheduled to include 140 slot machines, two poker tables and four blackjack tables. 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.
True North receives gaming revenue from these VLTs currently.
Ashton, the minister responsible for Manitoba Lotteries, suggested the plan to build a gaming centre near the MTS Centre had more to do with downtown development than supporting True North’s Winnipeg Jets franchise, though he did note that it will be “dedicated to the bottom line of the MTS Centre and having the Jets back in Winnipeg.”
While Brandon doesn’t have a comeback story like Winnipeg’s NHL franchise, we do, like Winnipeg, have a downtown in need of attention, renovation and resurgence.
Nevertheless, Ashton told the Sun on Wednesday that the province’s main concern was to respect the decision made by Brandon residents in two previous casino plebiscites and to ensure that any new gaming centre in Brandon wouldn’t impact the Spirit Sands Casino on the Swan Lake reserve.
But in our opinion, the question of whether a native-run casino will ever become an anchor tenant in the city’s downtown skyline has run its course.
Back in 2002, Brandon held a plebiscite in which a majority of voters rejected the idea of building a casino in the city. That ballot asked residents two questions, though — one of which involved the establishment of an “urban reserve” in the city, which was flatly rejected. The possibility that the outcome of that vote was tainted by racism and a lack of clarity prompted a second plebiscite and a clearer question five years later.
However, the second vote ended with similar results, as the question of an urban reserve once again reared its head.
Perhaps, then, we should not have been surprised when the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs snubbed overtures from Shari Decter Hirst and the Tribal Councils Investment Group for a new casino deal in Brandon last year, and instead put its full support behind the construction of the Spirit Sands Casino south of Carberry.
Clearly the AMC wants nothing to do with any casino development in Brandon — the organization’s leadership has made that abundantly clear. Ironically, that non-interest may have paved the way for the province to introduce a gaming centre to Brandon instead. It would also make null and void the past two plebiscite results, as the possible size and nature of a downtown Brandon gaming facility would change.
A gaming centre is not a casino. There is a significant difference in terms of scale. At 5,000-square feet, the new Winnipeg gaming centre is dwarfed by that city’s Club Regent and McPhillips Station casinos, which are 174,000 and 182,000 square feet, respectively.
Such a facility built inside a themed boutique hotel in downtown Brandon would still garner the city considerable tax and gaming revenues similar to what it might have shared in the casino model previously — just with one less partner.
And to be fair, a small gaming centre in Brandon should not detract from the future Spirit Sands Casino complex, if and when it’s finally built. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.
We believe the gaming centre template has merit for Brandon. There is land available for such a project in downtown Brandon now and we have a Brandon city council willing to at least look at the idea.
Now all we need is the political will from the province to make it happen.