Killed casino might be sign of change

Vancouver council’s decision to reject a mega-casino – and the provincial government’s muted reaction – might be symbols of change.

The casino project was backed by Gordon Campbell and promoted by Liberal insiders who stood to profit. It was cited as justification for the $563-million new roof for B.C. Place.

But many Vancouver residents were opposed to another 1,500 slots. The health authority thought it would increase addiction and care costs.

And a lot of business owners weren’t keen. A B.C. Lotteries study projected that gamblers from the Lower Mainland would lose $580,000 a day in the casino. That’s money that wouldn’t be spent in bars or movie theatres (or, for some addicts, on food for the family).

Vancouver council voted unanimously against the casino.

If Campbell were still the boss, Vancouver’s politicians would have paid a price for defying the government.

Instead, a quick provincial government news release quoted Jobs Minister Pat Bell saying the government “respects the province and Vancouver city council’s decision.”

And the release put some distance between the current government and Campbell.

“We have a renewed government under the leadership of Premier Christy Clark, and we are going to take a fresh look at options to develop this property,” Bell said (he didn’t really say it, of course – no one talks like that).

It’s a big reversal. In March 2010, Campbell and cabinet ministers Rich Coleman and Kevin Krueger announced the project as a done deal. It would bring economic activity, Campbell said, standing beside the managers from Paragon, the casino’s prospective operator.

But the deal quickly raised questions.

Start with the B.C. Place roof project launched in 2008.

PavCo, the Crown corporation that oversaw the $500-million cost overrun on the Vancouver convention centre, put out a request for proposals for a contractor to put a new roof on the stadium on Nov. 3, 2008.

It gave companies two weeks to bid on a project that would end up costing more than $500 million.

That was ludicrous. Companies couldn’t possibly prepare competent, competitive bids.

On Nov. 26, nine days after bidding closed, PavCo signed an agreement with PCL Constructors Canada Inc. It took 17 working days to go from the first call for bids to a commitment.

PCL was also the convention centre builder for PavCo. Its regional manager was a big Liberal donor.

PavCo’s plan to pay for the roof relied mainly on leasing public land around the stadium for the development.  That money could have been used for needed services or facilities around the province, or to pay down debt.

But the government wanted that new stadium roof. So on March 6, 2009, PavCo put a formal request for “expressions of interest” and gave potential developers just three weeks to respond.

Three weeks to come up with a plan for a big, prime piece of real estate in a desirable city.

PavCo picked qualified contenders and on April 20 called for proposals, giving companies five weeks to put in bids. Again, not much time for a considered approach, or to line up funding.

Only two bids were submitted.

And Paragon’s casino plan won.

Paragon had tight ties to the Campbell government. Insider T. Richard Turner is a party donor – he gave the Liberals $50,000 last year – and was appointed chairman of the B.C. Lottery Corp. and ICBC by the Liberals.

Turner was well-enough connected that when the government started getting spooked about the huge cost of a new stadium roof, he called then-tourism minister Kevin Krueger and told him the roof was a “deal-breaker.” Build it, or the casino deal wouldn’t go ahead.

So the government went ahead with the roof, at a cost of $125 for every person in the province.

Paragon and B.C. Lotteries might be back with a revised plan.

But right now, Vancouver seems to have made a good choice. And the new Liberal government seems to have accepted it.

Footnote: Who knows, the Clark government may even abandon the plan to work each year to increase both the number of people who gamble in the province and the amount each one loses. Clark did run for office in 2001 on a promise to halt gambling expansion, a promise that was quickly shredded as the Liberals went on a gambling spree.