City council hedges gambling expansion bets

Public forum to be held on increasing slot machine total in Terrace

TERRACE city council hedged its bets last night about allowing more slot machines at Chance’s operation here by wanting to first hear from the public.

Council voted unanimously to host a community forum after being asked by the BC Lottery Corporation to either increase the number of slot machines allowed at Chances Terrace or remove the maximum number it can have altogether.

But some councillors felt that a social cost comes with gambling and that such a decision shouldn’t be made lightly.

Chances Terrace has the highest demand on weekends for its slot machines compared to two other regional Chances outlets, a BC Lottery Corporation official told council.

Ninety per cent of the 75 slot machines are occupied here on the weekends compared to 54 per cent in Prince Rupert and 71 per cent in Williams Lake.

To keep up with demand, BC Lottery would like to up the number in Terrace to 99, said lottery official Greg Walker.

“Prince Rupert is not that far away,” Walker told council, noting reports from Chances management say that customers are willing to travel the distance to have more machine selection.

Slot machines here are Chance’s highest revenue source, brining in $9.6 million during the 2011/2012 fiscal year. From earnings from that period, $713,590 was paid in the form of community grants to local organizations.

Grants received include $100,000 to the Kalum Community School Society, $100,000 to the Ksan House Society and $66,500 to Volunteer Terrace.

Chances also helps the city budget ­ during this fiscal year’s first quarter, $154,767 is already banked for transfer.

“We’re well on our way to exceeding last year’s annual amount,” said Walker.

And while the local benefit of such revenues was acknowledged by council, it was also noted that gambling comes with a social cost, too.

“They really are quite a problem for a number of people,” said councillor Lynne Christiansen.  “I think we need to give it some thought.”

Walker said Chances acknowledges this and that programs are in place to manage gambling addiction and problems.

“We know the importance of responding to that,” said Walker, pointing to Game Sense Advisors which are interactive kiosks on location about making smart gambling choices.

A 24-hour gambling help line also exists from which 19 calls were made from the Terrace area between April 2011 until the end of December 2011.

People can also have themselves voluntarily banned from a gambling outlet and 38 people here signed up during that same time period.

Councillor James Cordeiro first suggested asking the public before taking what could be a social gamble.

“I would agree with Cordeiro,” added councillor Bruce Bidgood.

While council is not required to ask the public about allowing the change, councillors Stacey Tyers and Christiansen were first to agree with the forum.

Councillors Brian Downie and Marylin Davies were hesitant.

“An increase of 25 (seats) is not a substantive change,” said Downie, adding council could be opening the floor for a massive debate like was first seen when the decision to allow any slot machines in Terrace was made.

“If we go to public input I think we should frame that question fairly carefully. That’s my concern … we need to be very clear what the conceptions are.”

Davies added she thinks that slot machine usage shows what the public wants.

“I think that the citizens of Terrace have spoken pretty strongly when you look at the number of seats that are used,” she said. “I think we’re just trying to delay this.”

“In issues of high contentiousness … I don’t think we can rely solely on the fact that the seats are used,” responded Bidgood.

Mayor Dave Pernarowski added council would also ask the opinion of the RCMP.

By the meeting’s end, council unanimously agreed to host a publc forum. A date and venue has yet to be set.