Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Gambling for NHL hockey

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Is it a new casino, or just a sports bar with some poker and blackjack tables?

Well, the province says the new gaming centre to be opened downtown is definitely not a casino. That's because the term is loaded and it contradicts previous messaging it wouldn't license another casino in Winnipeg because the market is saturated.

Whatever it's called -- and some people will refer to it as the downtown casino -- the new entertainment and gaming venue is a welcome addition to the downtown and it will almost certainly be a success.

The new 5,000-square-foot sports bar/casino in the building directly south of the MTS Centre is small enough that the question of gambling saturation is really not too relevant, but it is an escalation, despite the NDP's attempt to mince words.

The introduction of online gambling, meanwhile, represents another boost and a new opportunity for people to spend, enjoy and lose their money, justified, as always, by the way the profit will be used for health care, aboriginal sports and other worthy causes. This move was made necessary by the proliferation of Internet gambling in other provinces, and there was no practical way or need for the Manitoba government to avoid joining the club.

The new downtown facility will be owned by True North Sports and Entertainment, proprietor of the Winnipeg Jets and the MTS Centre, while Manitoba Lotteries will run the tables and about 140 slot machines, with 100 per cent of the net gaming revenue -- estimated at $5.5 million annually -- directed to paying down the mortgage for the arena.

The partnership is a fulfillment of the province's pledge nearly two years ago to help True North with its bottom line if the organization succeeded in securing a NHL team.

Premier Greg Selinger went to great pains to assure the public the government was not funding the return of the team, although the taxpayers' support was clearly a factor in the business case for a viable NHL team.

The idea of supporting infrastructure -- the arena -- is more palatable than underwriting the million-dollar salaries of hockey players, but it again amounts to mincing words.

The arena is already heavily subsidized by the province and city to the tune of about $7 million a year, plus other concessions and VLT revenues from 50 machines in a nearby nightclub.

In addition, the three levels of government contributed over $40 million to the construction of the arena, which was described as a small part of the total price tag of $133.5 million. The problem is the building alone didn't cost much more than $100 million, meaning the public contributed 40 per cent.

The precise cost of building the arena was never disclosed, probably because it would undermine the government's line that it was overwhelmingly driven by the private sector.

Most people in Winnipeg were thrilled that the NDP supported True North. If anything, there were regrets that the contribution wasn't greater so the building itself could have been architecturally more significant.

There have, however, always been some nagging questions about transparency. The public has a limited right to be assured, for example, that it is not simply making rich people richer, and that taxpayer dollars and government gaming revenue are critical to the success of the venture.

The NDP government and True North have both been too worried about perception, which ironically has created some optical issues, but most adults understand that major-league arenas in Canada are invariably built with generous public support. The City of Edmonton, for example, is considering if it should contribute $200 million toward the cost of a new arena for the Oilers.

The bottom line is the MTS Centre has been a major boost for the downtown and the city. There's no need to mince words about that.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 24, 2013 A12

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