UPDATE: On April 19, 2011, Vancouver City Council unanimously rejected the province’s $450-million plan to bring Vegas-style gambling to Vancouver. The vote throws the 780,000-square-foot gaming and entertainment project into question, though the city did leave the door open for development, of some smaller magnitude, to occur on the BC Place site. Whether the casino operator, Paragon Gaming, and the thousands of expected gamblers will choose to stick with Vancouver is another matter, as writer Nick Rockel explained in this October 2010 feature.
In his black jacket and open- necked shirt, Scott Menke looks ready to play a little roulette, or maybe some Texas hold’em. One morning in late June, the president and co-founder of Las Vegas-based casino developer Paragon Gaming is sitting in the boardroom of his company’s downtown Vancouver office at Plaza of Nations. Menke has just flown in from Edmonton, where his company runs one of its three Canadian casinos. With the confidence of a croupier, he explains how Paragon plans to transform Vancouver into a global gambling destination.
Paragon owns the Edgewater Casino, an underwhelming 30,000-square-foot establishment at the far end of the plaza. But it recently won the right to build a Vegas-style hotel, casino and entertainment complex across the street from here, on a small plot of land next to provincially owned BC Place Stadium. The Edgewater – or rather, its precious gaming licence – will move to the new 780,000-square-foot development, which Paragon aims to finish by 2013.
With 150 tables and up to 1,500 slot machines, the casino portion of the still-unnamed, $450-million project will be more than three times bigger than the Edgewater. But Menke points out that it occupies just 14 per cent of the proposed complex, a branded property that will include two hotels with a combined 650 rooms, plus restaurants, shops, meeting spaces and spa and gym facilities. “Everybody says it’s a casino, but the casino is only 100,000 square feet out of 800,000,” notes the tall Arizona native.
Focus on destination tourism
Menke says the Paragon development is an opportunity to bring more visitors to Vancouver. Where 23 per cent of the Edgewater’s customers are from outside the Lower Mainland, Paragon projects that number will at least double at the new property, thanks to a mix of Canadian and international guests.
In other words, the joint won’t rely on Metro Vancouver residents to keep its baccarat tables and hotel rooms full. “We’ll continue to build our local base, but our focus is really on the destination tourism,” Menke says. “We absolutely believe that we’re going to be additive to the market, not competing with other hotels around here.”
Paragon’s Vancouver play is one more step in the expansion of the B.C. gambling industry, which may soon pour more money into provincial coffers than all corporate income taxes combined. Gambling – or gaming, to use the industry euphemism – is a lucrative business. But skeptics say the provincial government is hooked on the revenues it brings while overlooking the economic and social costs of problem gambling. To others, the idea that high rollers from Chicago and Shanghai will flock to a Vancouver casino is far-fetched. And if the province does view gambling as more than a money grab, it isn’t sharing its plan with the public.
Paragon is still in the process of seeking approval from the city to start construction. The company plans to apply for a development permit this fall after finishing a series of public hearings, and it hopes to break ground by next spring. So far Paragon appears to be in for a smoother ride than legendary U.S. casino builder Steve Wynn, who got run out of town in 1994 after proposing a similar development on the Vancouver waterfront. What’s changed since then? “Gaming is more mainstream,” Menke says. “And the facilities are much more approachable because people look at them as not only a casino.”