Millions lost, charities struggling and tension in Alberta’s gambling sector.
Those are just some findings of a recent Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission hearing decision involving the Grand Villa Casino.
Located in downtown Edmonton, the establishment closed its doors on and off between 2020 and 2022 due to COVID-19.
But the extended length of the Alberta casino’s closures rubbed AGLC the wrong way.
That’s mainly because the governing body says the casino remained closed for longer than necessary – much more than provincial restrictions imposed – costing AGLC and its general revenue fund between $3.8 and $4.5 million. It also added six weeks of wait time to fundraiser events for local provincial charities.
AGLC imposed a new licence condition earlier this year in response to the losses. The change required Grand Villa to operate slot and table games seven days a week.
However, the board struck down that action via a decision handed down on Oct.14.
AGLC removes slot machines from Grand Villa
Today, the Grand Villa – operated by Gateway Casinos & Entertainment Limited – is open seven days a week.
But that wasn’t always the case.
In fact, when the Alberta casino was still closed last fall, AGLC executives warned Grand Villa it would remove its gaming terminals from the location. That is unless Grand Villa resumed daily operations.
Nonetheless, the casino didn’t budge and – true to its word – AGLC removed 57 slot machines in February. AGLC reasoned the machines were more valuable in facilities open seven days a week.
Later in the year, the governing body also imposed a new licence condition.
Under the new stipulation, AGLC mandated the casino to do the following:
- Run slot and table games seven days a week
- Operate slots at least 14 hours per day
- Run tables at least 10 hours per day
Casinos have a responsibility to stay open, says AGLC
Gateway – viewing the decision as unfair – applied for a hearing. It took place on Sept.26.
Nonetheless, AGLC argued the licence condition was fair game.
Ultimately, said AGLC’s executive vice-president of public engagement and chief regulatory officer Dave Berry, Grand Villa’s responsibility should be to operate as often as possible.
Consider casinos – at an obvious cost – are in place to help fund provincial priorities, including health care, infrastructure and local charities. Over the years, many charities have grown dependent on that income.
Thus, from Berry’s point of view, casinos need to generate as much revenue as possible.
Charities feel the pinch of extended closures
Consider when the Grand Villa was closed in 2021, despite the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, the wait times for charitable events increased by 20%, going from 23 months to 28 months.
The result – from that specific decision – was an $8,000 loss to the charity pool. Although seemingly not a large amount, to many charities, such an amount can make or break its cause.
Laura Cunningham-Shpeley, executive director of the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues, loathed the situation.
“It’s just causing a lot of instability and insecurity for organizations that really rely on this funding.”
Meanwhile, Ainsley Hillyard – an artistic director with an upcoming casino event at the Grand Villa in January – touched upon another common concern:
“Because all of the money is pooled, the closures or the reduction in hours wouldn’t just affect our organization doing that specific casino.”
AGLC’s licence condition rejected
Steve Lautischer, AGLC’s executive vice president of business development, added all other casinos operate seven days a week. He commented Grand Villa’s reduced operations from Sept.2019 – March 2020 was something he hadn’t seen before.
AGLC also reported no other casinos had significant closures beyond the local COVID-19 restrictions. Only Grand Villa did.
Thus, the licence condition was a way to make the Grand Villa compile to the same standards as other casinos. Mitigating the effects of previous closures and reductions was among other priorities.
Regardless, the board panel’s decision saw it another way.
“Grand Villa should have the ability to decide when to operate, within reason, and in alignment with legislations, regulations and policies.”
AGLC wants Grand Villa open. Gateway wants flexibility
For its part, Gateway said the issue is much more complex than simply extending hours.
For starters, Stephen Rowbotham – regional general manager of Gateway’s Alberta operations – said AGLC’s licence condition would undermine the Grand Villa’s overarching operating philosophy – flexibility.
During its reduced operations in 2019, the Grand Villa would close early on slow days. However, it would capitalize on the increased foot traffic during Rogers Place event days (Grand Villa is inside).
Beyond that, development and construction stifled casino access. A work strike – between 2021 – 2022 – also didn’t help. Most recently, criminal record check delays have pushed back the reopening date.
Taken together then, the company argued the licence condition unduly constrained the casino’s flexibility. They also stated they did not intend to change the casino’s hours but wanted the ability to if needed.
Charities: two weeks not enough notice for changes to casino hours
In the end, per the decision, the Grand Villa must give AGLC and charities two weeks’ notice of any forthcoming hours changes.
Cunningham-Shpeley said that isn’t enough. According to her, community leagues often struggle to recruit volunteers for casino events.
Examples of charities supported by Alberta’s casinos are:
- Emergency shelters
- Seniors’ groups
- Sports programming
- Youth groups
- Animal shelters
- Religious organizations