Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 3, 2016
Buckle up, Brandon — you are about to drive headlong into another casino debate.
The closure of the Askeneskak Casino operating on the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in The Pas sent ripples through the water, and got tongues wagging online about the best home for the gaming centre, should the province OK its move.
The last time our city was on a casino’s radar was a few years back. The debate reignited when former mayor Shari Decter Hirst attended a Brandon Chamber of Commerce event flanked by members of the Tribal Council Investment Group. The scuttlebutt of the day was that our civic administration was in talks with TCIG about locating a casino in the city — something Decter Hirst herself reiterated when she took to the microphone.
Obviously, that centre did not come to fruition in Brandon as Sand Hills Casino found its new home on a desolate stretch of Highway 5 outside Carberry. The pro-casino crowd believed at the time that an opportunity had slipped through their fingers, and our former mayor felt the sting of that failed bid.
By the time TCIG and Hemisphere Gaming opened the doors of Sand Hills, they were knee-deep in the mud already. I took to this column two years ago noting that the economic return on the venture would be minimal at best for members of Manitoba’s First Nations and the region due to cost overruns and a location that would make even the most optimistic person scratch their heads.
As for the City of Brandon, it would stand to see even less in the way of revenue aside from potential advertising dollars to draw Brandonites to the centre.
A year later, Sand Hills casino posted a $1.3-million loss and rumours swirled, although never substantiated, that they were having difficulties covering payroll for the staff. Even though the project may exist on more stable ground now, the fact that Sand Hills continues to operate could come back to haunt Brandon. The province, which has final say on where the gaming licences operate, is likely to view this market as adequately served by a single gaming centre.
The other intangible that now exists is the wash of blue presenting itself daily in the legislature. The last time this question was raised, Brandon was split as far as party representation and former NDP MLA Drew Caldwell, who was pro-casino, had the ear of the premier in his post as legislative assistant to the top dog in the province.
Now with Brandon being represented by two Progressive Conservative MLAs outside of cabinet in a “mega majority,” you have to think that the chances of being heard on the casino issue is more of an uphill battle, should they choose to take it.
The city better not hold its breath, though.
Brandon West Tory MLA Reg Helwer has avoided supporting a casino in the past, noting that Brandonites have spoken in the form of two referendums on the proposal.
During his 2011 campaign, then as a prospective MLA, Helwer shared that he had “knocked on the majority of doors in Brandon West and had not had any residents raise the issue.” That sentiment, coupled with now-Brandon East Tory MLA Len Isliefson’s stance while as a city councillor, proves there is little will to push the issue in the legislature. In all reality, though, they may not even get the chance, as the Askeneskak group still have plenty of hoops to clear before relocation could even take place.
Should it get far enough along the path, though, the choice is not likely to come down to the voice of the residents. The city is almost certainly not willing to put it to another plebiscite, so the final decision to green-light a casino could rest on the shoulders of the province in conjunction with city council.
Our community has changed drastically since the first casino vote in 2002. The second vote in 2008 was mired in obscurity due to the questions posed, but should it come down to it, we must finally either support it or humanely put it to rest.
Furthermore, city council should prepare to take a stand in either case on this issue. It is all speculation at this point, but it is worth noting that a decision may be on the horizon. We are a different community than we were the last time around, but we are in an eerily similar position. Without provincial approval on a proposed relocation, this is just a mug’s game of sitting, wondering and waiting.