Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition June 28, 2014
As politicians, gamers and investors alike clamoured for photo opportunities at the new Sand Hills Casino near Carberry, many back in Brandon were left wondering about an opportunity lost — an opportunity that at times seemed like a sure bet and at times like a distant possibility.
The Sand Hills project finally coming to fruition brings to a close the story a decade in the making, and in all likelihood seals the outside chance Brandon had in landing a gaming centre as a potential downtown anchor.
Although officially the Manitoba government has remained on the record that a somewhat barren stretch of land along Highway 5 was the best location for the centre, off the record I’m sure many were left shaking their heads at this city’s reluctance to embrace a gaming centre, regardless of ownership groups.
Past plebiscite questions aside, there is little doubt there will be an economic spinoff for the area closest to the gaming centre. However, the region further afield, as well as Brandon, may not see the spinoff most in economic development offices are hoping for.
Sand Hills Casino officials, playing the good neighbour role, were quick to note Brandon would see economic benefit as a result of the gaming centre.
But it could be argued that the benefit for Brandon will be similar to the city’s benefit from places such as Belcourt, N.D., where the odd tour bus heads from here but the balance of the money, and the potential earnings, are spent there.
The actual economic impact for Brandon and, for that matter, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, is yet to be determined.
But what was once thought to be an economic driver for the region may prove more to be a driver for the management group in place.
The hefty price paid to finally close the deal may eventually be its Achilles heel as the monetary benefit to the region and Manitoba’s First Nations will undoubtedly end up smaller than anticipated.
Locally, the casino question has been debated ad nauseum, and twice our citizenry voiced their concerns and opposition through somewhat loaded plebiscites.
However, when looked at through the tourism lens and the perspective of an anchoring ability in areas such as the downtown core, there’s little to question.
The resulting growth around an anchor tenant like a casino has never been an issue in this province. The vitality of an area benefits from people spending prolonged periods of time and money in and around the anchor.
That said, there is a hope that the opening of the Sand Hills Casino will do one of two things for Brandon.
It will finally put the casino question to rest, allowing the city to focus on other opportunities.
On the flip side, however, it may allow the dialogue to begin on getting a provincially run gaming centre, similar to Winnipeg’s McPhillips Station Casino or Club Regent Casino, for this city.
Perhaps it may even be a plank for the upcoming civic election or even more so, the next provincial election.
Our mayoral hopefuls undoubtedly have, or should have, a stance on gaming and we know that provincially there is a taste for investment if the stars align.
So it might be time for the city and province to step up to the table again, this time with a new offer for a provincially governed casino in the Wheat City.
There is a will to spend some dough in Brandon and the NDP will need all the positive press they can garner, so the drive to proceed down this road with talks may be a little more palpable as we approach the next provincial election.
From a tourism standpoint, the potential also exists to couple in tours throughout the region and work hand in hand with Sand Hills to build on greater opportunities.
Brandon is big enough to sustain a venture such as this, and much like the Sand Hills example, if the will exists, in time successes can be found.
Brandon has always struggled with where it fits in terms of big-town or small-city mentality. The potential revenue a gaming centre would generate can be invested in arts spaces, entertainment and recreation — all of which signals an upward trend for most cities.
If this isn’t going to be the case, then it appears that all the chips have been spent at another table. For Brandon and its surrounding area, that is an unfortunate loss for something that was nearly ours.