If Quebec wants a casino that will attract tourists, the most logical place for it is at the Mont Tremblant resort, according to Gaétan Frigon, head of Loto-Québec.
Frigon, whose marketing skills turned staid Société des Alcools du Québec outlets into tasteful boutiques, was tossing a wild card on to a stack of options on how to develop Loto-Québec’s casino business. He floated the notion of a new casino at Tremblant during a recent meeting with the editorial board of The Gazette.
Tremblant has a $1-billion expansion plan in the works and expects to draw 7 million visitors by 2012. About 45 per cent of the resort’s visitors are from outside Quebec, Frigon said. Many are American and a growing number are expected from Europe and Asia.
“Theoretically, it makes sense. It will probably be a nice area to have a casino,” Frigon said.
Frigon claims to have left his UFABet poker-playing days behind, but he is playing a high-stakes game. The challenge presented him by Finance Minister Pauline Marois since he took the helm of Quebec’s most profitable crown corporation in February is to maintain Loto-Québec’s revenue (net $1.4 billion last year) but lessen the negative “social impact of gambling.” Translation: reduce the number of Quebecers who become addicted to gambling.
There has been a growing backlash stemming from the 100 documented gambling-related suicides in Quebec between 1993 – when Loto-Québec’s casino and video-lottery-terminal network were initiated – and 2002. In his first public speech in March, Frigon pledged to fight compulsive gambling.
At least in Quebec, among Quebecers.
Revenue that might be lost from a planned scale-back of 1,000 of Quebec’s 15,000 VLTs is to be offset by the export of Loto-Québec’s expertise in the gambling industry and through the enticement of more tourists to Quebec casinos.
Hence a reassessment of Loto-Québec’s first casino, which opened on Île Notre Dame in 1993 and has expanded several times since then.
The Casino de Montréal has been hugely successful – with Quebecers. Officials hoped for 5,000 people a day – 25 per cent tourists – but instead locals swamped the place. Tour buses couldn’t even get into the parking lot.
With expanded parking and gambling space, the casino now entertains 20,000 people a day, sometimes 30,000. Of the 6.8 million people who visited the gambling hall last year, only about 10 per cent of them were out-of-province tourists, according to Loto-Québec’s own figures.
Frigon has told a team to reassess the Montreal casino and given it three options:
– Status quo – leave the present Montreal operation as is.
– Expansion of the casino at its current site, which currently has about 3,060 slot machines, 127 gaming tables and 2,000 onsite parking spaces, with nearby lots for 1,500 more.
– Relocation of the casino, perhaps to the island of Montreal.
The status quo can be ruled out: doing nothing isn’t in Loto-Québec’s vocabulary, and it’s not Frigon’s style. Furthermore, he’d very much like a hotel as part of a flagship casino complex that would attract high rollers.
Alliances with hotel chains worked well for Frigon’s predecessor, Michel Crête. Loto-Québec’s restaurant and lodging sector posted earnings of $72.1 million last year. The corporation is one of the largest restaurateurs in Quebec with interests in the biggest hotels in Gatineau and the Charlevoix region, each comprising a casino-hotel complex.
But either an expansion or relocation of the casino is a gamble.
That’s because Loto-Québec will be coming up against people like Serge Chevalier, a sociologist and addiction specialist for the Montreal regional health office. He has co-written a study concluding that there are about 15,000 problem gamblers in Montreal.
Chevalier has already determined how he’ll assess any proposed changes to the Montreal casino. He’ll look at the parking. High rollers tend to use limo service or taxis. They don’t need parking, but area residents do.
“If there is any increase in parking space (at the existing site or a relocated casino) that will provide better casino access to the local and regional population,” he said.
What follows is predictable, he said. The greater the number of people exposed to gambling, the higher the number of people hooked and ruined by it.
In the early 1990s, as Quebecers awaited word from the Liberal government as to where the Montreal casino would be located, the most-discussed concern was crime. Should the casino move on to the island, those concerns will resurface, Chevalier said.
This view is shared by Claude Ryan, former Liberal public security minister. “It is preferable that (the casino) remain isolated from the centre of the city,” Ryan said.
At city hall, the Tremblay administration (Mayor Gérald Tremblay as Liberal industry minister a decade ago was a casino supporter) has told Frigon that plans for the casino have to coincide with plans for the city.
The city wants to “maximize residential development of the island,” said executive committee member Robert Libman, who was among municipal politicians who met recently with Frigon.
Current speculation about new casino sites among some developers, city officials and observers of the gambling scene extends to the vacant land adjacent to Hippodrome de Montréal.
La Société Nationale du Cheval de Course last year suggested that the financially beleaguered – and heavily subsidized – track be allowed 1,250 slot machines with profits paying for physical improvements and race purses.
A government-appointed analyst shot down the idea. Some wistful observers agree a casino at the track looks attractive because it would solve several problems at once.
Marvin Rotrand, the city councillor responsible for the area, is against it. It wouldn’t fly at city hall and would generate a huge local opposition, he said.
Meanwhile, Heritage Montreal, the watchdog group whose interests include public spaces and parks, is adamantly opposed to any expansion on the current site.
Île Notre Dame is already under tremendous pressure, program director Dinu Bumbaru said. The casino has gobbled up green space and brought steady streams of traffic to the island.
If the casino expands there will be an increased need for transportation access, he said, which raises the notion of more parking spaces or a monorail connecting the park with downtown or Old Montreal, an idea bandied about in the past.
As for hotels on Parc des Îles, Bumbaru noted that Six Flags, the company that recently took over La Ronde on Île Ste. Hélène, has an option to build a hotel on its site. It’s all bad news for the park-loving public, Bumbaru said.
He and others following casino developments figure the greater good might be best served if the casino moves to the Technoparc.
Located between the Champlain Bridge and Old Montreal, it’s a stretch of landfill created for Expo 67, now home to several businesses, including Teleglobe Canada. Should the casino move there, at least gambling profits will pay to recuperate contaminated land, Bumbaru said.
Frigon said he suspected the Technoparc is often mentioned as a possible site because “the city of Montreal wold be very happy to get rid of it.”
While in one breath Frigon floated the Tremblant option, in another he maintained that the “priority is to stay” at the current site where Loto-Québec has invested millions of dollars.
He cited measures being taken to attract Americans to the existing casino – raising maximum bets, changes to blackjack rules, targeted advertising, etc.
Consideration is also being given to building a new cabaret on the property and using the existing cabaret floor space to create about 25 luxury suites for high rollers, he said.
All the talk of high rollers – who Frigon characterized as gamblers “who don’t mind losing $100,000 a night” – perplexes industry experts.
High rollers don’t come to Montreal, and some analysts don’t believe they ever will.
“You are not going to transform Montreal into Las Vegas,” said William Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada.
Cities like Gary, Ind., learned that the hard way, he said.
The Montreal casino has what Eadington called an “undersupply problem.” It is generally busy and very crowded during peak periods. That weakens the case for a hotel because usually hotels are created to supply the casino. And crowds of the wrong kind of people discourage premium players as well as high rollers.
One solution is to have different casinos for two different markets, “one for locals that is value-sensitive” and another, at the higher end, for tourists, he said.
Which takes us back to Frigon’s Tremblant trial balloon. Frigon told The Gazette that he will make his recommendation about the casino by November. He is looking beyond that.
“As I fit all my pieces together, I might come out next spring and tell the minister I think that with all the rearrangements we are making (at the current site) to bring in tourists (that) she authorize a casino in Mont Tremblant. It is the only territory in Quebec that makes sense to have a casino that will not depend on local people,” Frigon said.
So, Tremblant: a wild card or Frigon’s ace in the hole?