Gambling on the Waterfront?

Reports this week that the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation is considering moving the Halifax casino from its waterfront location must surely have raised a red flag for anyone who remembers that relocating the Sydney casino is a key element of developer Martin Chernin’s plan for the Sydney waterfront.

It’s not an uncontroversial element, of course, given Chernin’s plan would put the casino next to the library (a proposed public building he was, inexplicably, permitted to include in his scheme) and just a stroll along the boardwalk away from the new NSCC Marconi Campus. (This last is interesting because one of the four sites considered for the Marconi was next to Centre 200 and proximity to the casino was considered a drawback.)

Harbour Royale Development Ltd's Sydney waterfront plan.

Harbour Royale Development Ltd’s Sydney waterfront plan. Note casino located in expanded Holiday Inn.

 

Chernin was given 18 months to get something going on the waterfront in June 2018 and, when he failed to meet that deadline, council extended it by another 18 months. But with four months to go before this extension expires, there is no (public) sign of progress. (Although who knows what is happening behind the scenes, where most of the action in CBRM takes place? I want to go on record now predicting he will request a third extension because: COVID.)

 

For real?

How serious Chernin’s plans for the casino ever were is debatable — his idea was to convince the company that owns Sydney’s Holiday Inn, the Westmont Hospitality Group (misidentified, during his presentation to council, as the Westmount Hotel Group) to expand its waterfront location to house the relocated casino.

The casino is operated by the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation on behalf of the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation (formerly the Nova Scotia Provincial Lotteries and Casino Corporation). Back in 2018, just after Chernin’s scheme was first presented to council, I contacted what was then the NSPLCC, and spokesperson Monica MacLean told me it would need to approve any plan to relocate the casino:

Extensive due diligence would be performed, including review of the business case and consideration for responsible gambling and harm mitigation strategies. We would also consult and work with several stakeholders, including the regulator (the Alcohol, Gaming, Fuel, and Tobacco Division of Service Nova Scotia) as well as our current casino operator, Great Canadian Gaming Corporation.

At that time, she said the corporation had not been approached about the Sydney waterfront proposal.

Still, the casino relocation was included in the plan that impressed council enough to give Chernin his “pre-development contract,” so the recent reports about the Halifax casino are of interest.

 

Declining returns

Documents obtained from the province by the CBC’s Shaina Luck via an access to information request show that, although COVID has put any plans on hold for now, the Gaming Corporation has been considering moving the Halifax casino (also operated by Great Canadian Gaming Corporation) away from the waterfront for years. Bob MacKinnon, president and CEO of Nova Scotia Gaming, told Luck:

…the need for investment in the building, combined with decline in revenues, caused Nova Scotia Gaming to start considering its options in 2014. As well, the organization thought the proposed Cogswell Interchange redevelopment would have a negative effect on foot traffic to the casino.

Casino Nova Scotia Sydney

Staff proposed five options for relocating the casino, but they were redacted from the documents Luck received. She could say only that “two of them are in the Bayers Lake business park area.”

The Halifax casino has “struggled with declining revenues for a decade and COVID-19 kept it closed for most of a year,” both of which statements apply to the Sydney casino, as anyone who has read Rob Csernyik’s excellent, four-part series marking the 25th anniversary of Sydney’s gambling palace will know. As Csernyik explained:

Between 1997 and 2019, the two casinos paid the province only 57% of what had been anticipated. Sydney’s casino has about 500,000 fewer visitors than it did at the turn of the century and provincial revenue has declined almost 40% in the same period. Since 2000, Sydney’s casino workforce has declined by half. The fees paid to the CBRM – about $620,000 annually in property taxes and lease payments – have remained static over time. The original mission as a charity casino was abandoned years ago…

The idea that as Nova Scotia Gaming seeks to relocate the Halifax casino to a lower-rent location, it would approve a plan to move the Sydney casino to the waterfront seems like…how shall I put it?

A long shot.