When it was announced in 2008 that New Brunswick’s first-ever casino would be built in Moncton, the word “increase” was often thrown around by local residents: increase in automobile traffic, increase in crime, increase in gambling addiction.

These concerns persisted over the next two years and were regularly expressed at various planning commission and city council meetings, right up to the casino’s grand opening on May 4, 2010. But a year later, the fear that Casino New Brunswick would change the landscape for the worse seems to have been largely exaggerated, with the facility now playing an integral role in enhancing Moncton’s long-sought reputation as the “entertainment capital of Atlantic Canada.”

“I think our biggest accomplishment was getting past that initial, cautious concern that patrons had so that we could help them understand that this is just entertainment, and we’re not here to do anything that will be perceived as negative,” said Cameron Uhren, Casino New Brunswick’s interim chief operating officer.

Sitting near one of the 500 slot machines on the casino’s 24,000-square-foot gaming floor, Uhren is quick to point out that a prime focus for him has always been working with and giving back to the same community that once seriously doubted his facility’s integrity.

“We had to prove ourselves,” he admitted. “But we’ve really focused on being part of the community. We partner with the City of Moncton for events, we’ve put sponsorships in place that will be going to the universities this fall and we’ve easily given away over $75,000 in donations and sponsorships. I think we’ve really started to build those community relationships.”

But there was a time when those relationships may not have been so easy to form. In the lead-up to the casino’s opening last year, residents and politicians alike were still fretting, despite assurances that the casino was not to be feared.

Councillor Daniel Bourgeois, who chaired the citizens’ committee on destination gaming in the early 2000s, said in an interview on the eve of the casino’s opening that while the $90-million facility would bring the city new money in the form of property taxes, Moncton might just manage to break even because it would have to invest more in emergency services for the area around the casino. Speaking to the Times &Transcript yesterday, Bourgeois admitted that his views have changed.

“I have not heard any concerns expressed by residents over the past year,” he said. “The initial fear was probably an exaggerated fear. The casino’s owners have been exemplary corporate citizens in the community. Negative consequences might pan out in the future, I don’t know. But I hope these concerns don’t materialize.”

Indeed, according to Codiac RCMP, no major incidents have been reported at the casino since its opening. Any onsite problems could be dealt with by the facility’s 45 security staff members, but it’s a rare occurrence, says Uhren. In fact, security is especially in place to “maintain the casino’s integrity,” such as preventing minors from accessing the gaming floor.

A dozen phone calls made to the Sunshine Drive and Muirfield Drive area surrounding the casino solicited only positive responses from residents regarding the facility’s presence, although none of them wanted their names published.

“You wouldn’t even know the casino is there,” said one woman, who only wanted to be identified as Mrs. Brushett. “It doesn’t make any noise and there are no traffic problems whatsoever.”

Bourgeois gives the establishment an overall grade of A-. He notes as positive aspects the fact that the casino was built on the outskirts of the city, thereby preventing “thousands of people working in the downtown area going to gamble on their lunch hour.” He is satisfied with the buffer built around the facility, saying that it brings down traffic noise and stops the parking lights from shining in the backyards of the dozens of homes that surround the casino. Finally, he cites the concentration of video-lottery terminals at the casino as a good thing, saying that the lack of VLTs in the rest of the city is one less incentive to gamble.

But the not-for-profit clubs who depended on VLTs as a major source of revenue say differently. Under the Responsible Gaming Policy introduced by the former Liberal government, establishments within 80 kilometres of the casino whose VLTs brought in less than $6,034 a week had their machines taken away. The loss of funds due to this rule forced the closure of the Air Force Veterans 31 Club last summer, and has the Moncton Press Club worried for its future.

“If we were outside the casino zone, we would have no doubt been able to keep the VLTs,” said club president Bill Hamilton. “The loss of revenue has been a tremendous strain on our organization. We’re really fighting for our existence. But what we really feel bad about is that we now have limited funds to give to the charities we used to support. The government should have given a little more consideration when they came up with their policy. They take away the VLTs from non-profit clubs, but yet they give them to the for-profit establishments.”

Despite this issue being a direct result of the casino’s presence, Uhren has nothing to say on the matter, stating that his focus remains on his own business. But he does indicate that combatting gambling addiction remains a top priority for him. Out of the $18 million in profits that was handed over to the province this year, a portion was invested by the government in addiction services funding.

While reports note a slight spike in requests for gambling addiction services in cities with a new casino, it is unclear if the new cases are a direct result of the casino’s presence. Nonetheless, Casino N.B. hopes to remain proactive.

“It is part of our business that there will be individuals who do have a problem,” said Uhren. “But the bulk of our customers do not have issues. We have slot universities to make responsible gamers and help them make the right choices with their funds. We have responsible gaming offices onsite and we provide patrons with info on how gaming works and potential signs of problem gaming.”

Gambling addiction statistics for the Moncton region are unavailable, according to the Department of Health. Provincial data indicates that the number of people who called to seek help for gambling addiction or people concerned for a loved one increased from 473 in 2009-2010 to 496 in 2010-2011. But it is impossible to say if the casino is responsible for that slight increase.

However, out of the bevy of concerns brought forward as the casino was taking shape, it was the one that was never voiced that ended up being the one that would take centre stage immediately following the casino’s opening: the lack of bilingual services.

“We have been very proactive since this was raised to us and realized this was something that needed more attention,” said Uhren, who was not in charge at the time, having only assumed a leadership role last November.

Not being permitted to speak French at the poker table or play with French slot machines caused a flood of complaints to arrive on the desk of New Brunswick’s Official Languages Commissioner, causing a PR fiasco in the casino’s first week of business. Although some of the complaints were described at the time as being “misinformed” by Michael Novac, president and CEO of the Casino’s operator Sonco Gaming, a formal apology was eventually issued by general manager Steve Hancock on May 7, 2010. Since then, things have been much different, promises Uhren.

“Over 65 per cent of our staff are bilingual,” he said.

“We make sure all our signage is bilingual and that guests are greeted in both official languages. This is a primary focus for us. And through the surveys we’ve done, we’ve noticed that we actually have a stronger support from the francophone and bilingual community than from the anglophone community.”

Jean-Marie Nadeau, president of the Société de l’Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick, says it is clear that some “admirable efforts” have been made, but that the government should have made it clearer much sooner to the casino’s owners that New Brunswick is an officially bilingual province.

“The province has a moral obligation to project an image of two equal communities, and as often as possible, we must show this duality, because in the end, duality brings in cash,” he said, noting that his group’s meetings with the casino have since been very productive.

Over the past year, Casino New Brunswick has welcomed over one million visitors to its casino and entertainment centre, and that’s not even counting the hotel. But according to Uhren, it is not so much the Vegas-style casino, the luxury spa or the four-and-a-half star hotel that have managed to develop an acceptance of Casino New Brunswick among the community, but rather its capability at attracting big names to its entertainment centre.

Since its opening, more than 60 acts, including Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers, Regis Philbin and Howie Mandel have graced its stage, bringing in over 60,000 people. And it is this aspect that has the city especially proud of its initial gamble back in 2008.

“If it was not for the centre, we would not have had some of the major shows that came to Moncton this year,” said the city’s economic development specialist, Ben Champoux. “The location of the casino near Magnetic Hill has transformed the area from being a four-month tourism location to a 12-month location. This has all beefed up the tourism value in the area and has really showcased Moncton as the entertainment hub in this part of the country.”

© 2011 Times & Transcript (Moncton)