Casino hearing draws capacity, and then some

More than 500 people packed Surrey City Hall on Monday evening to let their thoughts be known about a controversial casino complex planned for South Surrey.

An astounding 192 people registered to speak to council. The majority of those were in favour of the project.

However, council ended the meeting at 1:30 a.m., after hearing from only 72 people (36 from each side). Council has scheduled another meeting this Friday at 7 p.m. to hear from the other 120.

Sign ups are closed, so council will only hear from those with a number from Monday night.

Many who spoke against the application Monday railed against the process leading up to Monday's meeting.

Semiahmoo First Nation council member Joanne Charles said she couldn't support nor speak against the proposal, because the band wasn't brought into the consultation process.

"We were not consulted... at any time," Charles told council.

Susan Lindenberger said she felt misled by the information that was presented to the public leading up to the meeting.

"We are all tired of listening to the half-truths spun by those who would foist this casino upon us," Lindenberger said.

She also doesn't buy into the romantic notion of a destination entertainment area, and instead sees, "individuals pushing buttons over and over, chasing their losses."

Surrey Board of Trade CEO Anita Huberman said the casino and entertainment centre "can and will be a real destination."

She said it's high time Surrey had an entertainment complex of this magnitude.

"This is much more than a casino," she said.

Others in favour of the project told council it's time to grow into a big city and recognize the promising business benefits and the jobs that go with it.

The $100-million project has been highly contentious amongst local residents for the better part of a year.

It's slated to include a 60,000-sq.-ft. gaming area, 200-room hotel and a 27,000-sq.-ft. convention and entertainment centre.

The development is planned for an 18-acre parcel of land at 10 Avenue and 168 Street. Gateway Casinos & Entertainment Inc. is proposing to move its gaming licence from 7093 King George Blvd. to a yet-to-be-built facility on the land.

Surrey council zoned the South Surrey property for a casino two years ago, with little objection from the public.

However, that has changed significantly, with many area residents now opposed.

The casino proposal requires the approval from the B.C. Lottery Corp. (BCLC), which has said it won't move forward without the blessing of Surrey council.

Some who were opposed to the casino said they were worried about the amount of gaming addiction it would bring to the community.

Paul Smith, BCLC director of corporate responsibilit,y told council 4.6 per cent of B.C. residents have gambling problems.

He noted that six new casinos have been opened in the last decade, with no increase in the amount of  problem gambling.

He attributed that to several initiatives underway by BCLC such as GameSense, a gambling assessment and counselling service run by the corporation.

The project is also supported by Surrey business organizations. The casino promises to bring in $3 million in revenue each year for Surrey as the host city.

The Newton property will close when the South Surrey location is ready, according to Jim Lightbody, BCLC's vice-president of casino and community gaming .

The Newton site has been fraught with controversy since it was first proposed by Surrey council.

It was the subject of a highly contentious public hearing in 2009, when gaming critics were pitted against not-for-profit organizations, which rely heavily on gaming revenues.

After a long meeting, council passed the gaming expansion in Newton on a five-to-four vote, even though it contravened the city's own gaming policy.

The company that won the rezoning later  flipped the property to Gateway Casinos and Entertainment, which is now at the forefront of the move south.

The promise of $25 million worth of improvements on the Newton property died with the change in ownership.

City councillors and the public said publicly they no longer wanted the Newton facility.

By 10 p.m., Surrey council had only heard from a couple dozen of the 185 speakers signed up to address council.

Councillors played their cards close to their chest, not giving much indication as to how they stood on the casino project.

With the volume of speakers still waiting to speak at 10:30 p.m., council scheduled a second public hearing Friday to continue hearing from the list.



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