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Waiting for the deluge.

The Crystal Casino in the Hotel Fort Garry has defied the odds and has been a winner to date. However, the deluge of tourists and die-hard gamblers is yet to happen, and some doubt if it ever will.

The Crystal Casino in the Hotel Fort Garry, opened December 29, is alive and well, in spite of warnings from religious doomsayers and financial predictions that a swanky casino would never work on the Prairies. Doubters expected red ink to flood government ledgers and a glut of painted women to lurk on Broadway. To date, the casino is doing very well thank you; and it appears that the gloomsters worried unduly.

Even without the new casino. gambling in Manitoba is big business. In 1988, the sum of all lottery ticket sales, government-controlled bingos, raffles, race track betting and casino, style betting totalled $318 million. Throw in a few million more for illegal bookie action and an estimate for what Manitobans invest in the Irish Sweepstakes and other foreign pools and you get a very impressive sum. As such, the Crystal Casino, estimated by Lotteries Minister Bonnie Mitchelson to rake in $10 million in its first year of operation, is a trifle.

Yet the keepers of the public conscience wring their hands. Ten months before opening, Anglican Minister and Winnipeg City Councillor Harold Macdonald declared that by moving the casino from tatty quarters in the Convention Centre to new, upscale quarters in the Fort Garry... "the government takes on the role of plunderer of the public. Ezekiel called such leaders shepherds who eat, rather than protect, the sheep." Amen.

Financially, predictions of disaster have proved at least premature. On weekends, according to early reports, eager gamblers have waited as long as three hours for a chance at the tables. The casino appears to be a winning government program.

It could still lose the overall race, however. On paper, the $10 million first-year earnings will provide a handsome initial return on the $5 million Ms. Mitchelson disclosed as having been invested. But can the Crystal Casino do that well every year?

Garth Manness, the Lotteries Commission general manager who planned the Crystal Casino, expected a general benefit to flow to the province from tourists and gambling junketers who would, in theory, come to Winnipeg to try their luck. To date, admits Aziz Bocti, general manager of the Hotel Fort Garry, there have been no floods of visitors coming solely for the casino.

What is certain, is that the Fort Garry's occupancy rate for February, 1990, was 70 percent - average for quality downtown Winnipeg hotels, according to hospitality industry consultants Laventhol & Horwath. "We have some tours coming in the spring and summer, some for gambling, but it is not very many," Bocti explains. Perhaps the deluge is yet to come.

Manitoba's casino is in a tough market. According to Gaming and Wagering Business, an authoritative U.S. trade publication, casinos are now legal in Nevada, New jersey, Puerto Rico, South Dakota and even in the midwest heartland of Iowa. Riverboat gambling has been legalized and will soon begin on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and is on the legistative calendar for Texas. There are casino proposals as well for Illinois, Louisiana, Indiana and Ohio. Bingo is legal in 45 states, poker in I I states, lotteries for charitable causes in 32 states, and slot machines in five states and Puerto Rico. Throw in horse and dog races along with off-track betting, and there's no shortage of ways to gamble in America.

The summer of 1990 will test the casino's ability to draw tourists. Winnipeg will host the Western Canada Summer Games, a major packaging convention and even a gathering of Mennonites. Sports fans and industrial types are fair bets for some casino play.

If the Crystal Casino is to draw really serious money and survive in competition with gambling in the U.S., it will have to expand its hours and ensure that junketers don't have to stand in line to place their bets.

In such a standardized industry, it's the fringe benefits that often make the difference. Las Vegas has free drinks for players, dazzling floorshows to entertain you and crooner Wayne Newton. The Crystal Casino forbids booze on its premises, has no nightclub and employs a one man band - namely Al Simmons. Against the charms of Vegas and the other made-in-merica gambling havens, the Manitoba Lotteries Commission can only hope to operate as a kind of voluntary taxation agency in which locals give their money to the Commission, there to be transferred to the ultimate beneficiary, the Manitoba Health Services Development Fund.

Over at Lew Miles Las Vegas, a firm that assembles junkets to Las Vegas, business is still flourishing. Spring trips to Nevada are almost fully booked. If the high rollers are staying home to gamble in Manitoba, they haven't noticed on the Las Vegas strip.
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Title Annotation:Crystal Casino
Author:Allentuck, Andrew
Publication:Manitoba Business
Date:Jun 1, 1990
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