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Extended downtown casino closures cost province, Edmonton charities millions logo 2022-11-09 Madeleine Cummings

Edmonton-area charities and the provincial government lost millions of dollars in revenue between 2019 and 2022 because of extended closures at the casino inside Rogers Place downtown, according to a recent Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission hearing decision.

Alberta casinos were directed to close for about five months in 2020 and five months in 2021 to limit the spread of COVID-19, but closures at the Grand Villa Casino in recent years exceeded those periods.

The casino reduced its operational days in the fall of 2019 and was fully closed between March 17, 2020 and July 18, 2022.

The Oct. 14 hearing decision reveals the casino's closures added six weeks to fundraising event wait times for local charities and cost AGLC and its general revenue fund between roughly $3.8 million and $4.5 million.

In response to the losses, AGLC imposed a new licence condition earlier this year, requiring the business to operate slot and table games seven days a week.

But in AGLC's hearing decision, a panel of board members sided with the company, allowing the condition to be struck.

Laura Cunningham-Shpeley, executive director of the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues, said the decision is concerning because community groups and charities count on stable casino revenue.

"It's just causing a lot of instability and insecurity for organizations that really rely on this funding," she said.

AGLC removed slot machines

Last fall, while the casino was still closed, AGLC executives told Grand Villa it intended to remove AGLC gaming terminals from the facility unless it resumed operating daily.

In February, AGLC removed 57 slot machines and later this year imposed the new licence condition — requiring the casino to operate slot and table games seven days a week, running slots at least 14 hours per day for slots and tables 10 hours a day.

The casino currently operates seven days per week. © Madeleine Cummings/CBC The casino currently operates seven days per week.

Gateway Casinos & Entertainment Limited, which runs the casino, applied for a hearing, which was held on Sept. 26.

The panel — board chair Len Rhodes and members Vincent Vavrek and Jack Fujino — decided the new licence condition should be removed.

"Grand Villa should have the ability to decide when to operate, within reason, and in alignment with legislation, regulations and policies," reads the decision.

Anomaly in Alberta

Steve Lautischer, AGLC's executive vice-president of business development, said during the hearing that all other casinos operate seven days a week and that Grand Villa's reduced operations from September 2019 until March 2020 was not something he had seen before.

An AGLC spokesperson told CBC News on Tuesday that no other casinos had significant closures outside of provincial restrictions related to the pandemic.

Dave Berry, AGLC's executive vice-president of public engagement and chief regulatory officer, said during the hearing he believed Grand Villa and other casinos have a responsibility to operate as much as possible to generate revenue that is passed on to charities. 

The licence condition, he said, was recommended to the board to make sure the casino operated in line with others — and to mitigate the effects of previous closures and reductions.

AGLC said during the hearing that its machines are more valuable in facilities open seven days a week and that without the licence condition, the downtown casino could reduce its operational time, negatively affecting Albertans and charities.

"Because all of the money is pooled, the closures or the reduction in hours wouldn't just affect our organization doing that specific casino," said Ainsley Hillyard, an artistic director and general manager at the Good Women Dance Collective, which has a casino event at Grand Villa coming up in January.

Hillyard said the collective lost about a year's worth of income because of casino closures during the pandemic. Charitable gaming revenue provides the group with more money than both the city and provincial governments do.

Casino wants flexibility

Stephen Rowbotham, regional general manager for Gateway Casinos & Entertainment Limited's Alberta operations, said during the hearing that the Grand Villa reduced operations in 2019, closing on slow days and capitalizing on increased traffic during Rogers Place event days.

He also said development and construction in Ice District has caused traffic disruption and access problems.

The casino also grappled with a labour dispute, including a strike, between 2021 and 2022. Delays with criminal record checks pushed back its reopening date this year.

The company's legal team argued the licence condition unduly constrained the casino's ability to be flexible with operational times and that while the casino did not intend to change its hours — it's currently open daily — it wanted the ability to do so.

A spokesperson for Gateway Casinos & Entertainment said the company has no additional comments on the decision.

Per the decision, Grand Villa must give AGLC and charities two weeks' notice of any forthcoming hours changes.

Cunningham-Shpeley said two weeks is not a lot of time for community leagues, which often struggle to line up volunteers for casino events.

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