CANADA

THE BIG PAYOFF

A phenomenally successful Montreal casino pours money into Quebec’s coffers

BARRY CAME in Montreal January 17 1994
CANADA

THE BIG PAYOFF

A phenomenally successful Montreal casino pours money into Quebec’s coffers

BARRY CAME in Montreal January 17 1994

THE BIG PAYOFF

CANADA

A phenomenally successful Montreal casino pours money into Quebec’s coffers

The place is, as they say in Montreal, “branchée.” Translations vary, but the term loosely means “plugged in” or “wired.” In trendy circles on both sides of the city’s linguistic divide, there is no higher compliment. To be labelled “branchée” is to be recognized as an establishment that has somehow managed to capture, if only fleetingly, the often fickle public fashion. And for the past three months, there has been no more popular place to be or be seen in Montreal than the brand new casino that sits, in splendid isola-

tion, on lie Notre Dame smack in the middle of the St. Lawrence River.

Ever since the casino swung open its plate-glass doors for business in October— the first in Quebec and the largest in Canada—it has been a phenomenal success. “We thought we were going to pull in around 5,000 customers a day,” says Ron Sheppard, the casino’s 58-year-old director, as he sips a coffee at one of the building’s six bars. “Instead, we’ve been averaging between 10,000 and 12,000 on weekdays, 14,000 to 16,000 on weekends.” The lanky Sheppard, an ex-Mountie from Calgary who once ran Winnipeg’s $5-million Crystal Casino, gives his head a shake. “We’ve even had to turn people away a couple of times.” He casts a glance out towards a sea of garish, clattering slot machines, each manned by a mesmerized patron. “Look at the size of this place,” he adds incredulously. “Who’d have thought we’d ever be so full that we’d have to lock the doors?”

Given the scale of the facilities on the manmade He Notre Dame, it might be a little difficult to believe. The casino, owned and

operated by the provincial lottery company LotoQuébec, is housed in what once was the French Pavilion during Expo ’67 and since then has been a museum called the Palais de la civilisation. It is a vast, airy structure fashioned of glass, steel and concrete that is packed from 11 a.m. to 3 a.m., seven days a week. Eight circular floors surround a huge, open central atrium. Now, the bottom three floors are gaming space, 60,000 square feet of it. There are 1,223 slot machines, 46 green baize tables for blackjack, 10 more in green for roulette, four in red baize for midi-baccarat (a card game similar to blackjack), two lounges for keno (similar to an instant lottery), and even a computerized racetrack where six tiny jockeys ride six tiny horses round and round a miniature course.

Even on a midweek evening, the place is humming. All three gaming floors are jammed, as are both restaurants. The action is particularly heavy on the lowest level, where a maze of 600 slot machines, bets ranging from 25 cents to a dollar, buzz and blink in a cacophony of noise and flashing light. Few of the one-armed bandits are unoccupied, but the prime attraction is a bank of machines arranged around a $48,000 black Mercedes coupe mounted on a pedestal. François Lochon, a 42-year-old electrician from suburban Laval, is pumping loonies, three at a time, into one of the machines. “I’m going to win it,” he affirms, pausing to rummage for more coins in a plastic bucket between his knees. ‘They’ve given away three cars, all Cadillacs I think, in the last three months so I figure the odds can’t be that bad.”

On the second level, the crush is almost as bad. But it is centred on the blackjack tables. There are 26 in all, but the most popular are the six with a $5 minimum bet and 10 others where the minimum is $10. “It’s murder trying to get a place at any one of those,” grouses Sheila O’Donnell, a visitor from nearby upstate New York. “I’ve been in town for the past week, here almost every day, but I still haven’t managed to get in early enough to snag one of the cheap seats.” She lifts her chin towards a comer of the floor where the stakes are higher, ranging from $50 to $100 minimums. “It’s quieter over there but I can’t afford it.”

There are those who clearly can, however. The high rollers are at table 14, where the minimum bet is $100 and the maximum $1,000, highest in the house. All seven seats at the table are occupied. They’re all men,

mostly middle-aged, and they are playing with a silent, flinty-eyed concentration. ‘Those are the serious ones,” murmurs Denis Galy, a 36year-old blackjack dealer at a nearby $100 minimum-$500 maximum table. Galy’s table is the only one in the entire casino that is vacant. The cards from his “sabot,” or shoe, are spread in a neat fan across the green baize, beckoning.

If the casino’s current runaway popularity holds up over the longer term, the cashstrapped authorities in Quebec City may well have stumbled upon a money-spinner, a means of grabbing hold of at least a portion of the $135 million Quebecers are believed to have spent last year on casinos outside the province. Initially, Loto-Québec expected the casino to generate gross earnings of $114 million in the first full year of operation, with a net profit of $50 million for the government. But those estimates were based on an average daily attendance of 5,000—not figures that are double, or even triple, the original targets. For the moment, Loto-Québec will not release any updated figures based on the new attendance.

Even without the added revenues, however, both the province and the Montreal city government are in line for some hefty benefits. The casino pays the city $1.4 million a year in rent for the old French Pavilion at Expo and $2.2 million in permits and municipal taxes. It also expects to see another $54 million in spinoffs from the tourist industry. And the provincial authorities will collect taxes from the 1,400 permanent new jobs that have been created. Other provinces are also being tempted by the potential profits from gambling. Ontario plans a casino in Windsor as a joint operation between the province and private investors, while Nova Scotia’s Lottery Commission has been studying the issue as well. Alberta and British Columbia already allow more modest gaming houses, while the four-year-old provincially owned Crystal Casino in Winnipeg’s Fort Garry Hotel now earns $14 million a year, which goes to special healthcare projects.

In Montreal, much will depend on the durability of the casino’s appeal. The people who run it clearly believe the current success is going to last. Having spent $92 million to refurbish and re-equip the structure, Loto-Québec has asked for approval to carry out a $75-million expansion—enlarging the gambling area and adding another 1,000 parking spaces. The provincial government has yet to give an answer. But it already plans to open a similar, though smaller, casino in the Charlevoix region east of Quebec City next spring. And if the Montreal casino continues to be viewed by Montrealers as “une place branchée,” then the government may well be persuaded that it is a gamble worth taking.

BARRY CAME in Montreal