Imagine a crystal palace on the Halifax waterfront, an iconic emblem for the province, beside the towers at Purdy’s Wharf. Now add a seawalk, spectacular water shows, a downtown trolley and Barnacle Pete’s Wharfside Revue, complete with “buxom wenches.”

This was the original vision of what Casino Nova Scotia would offer. A spectacular attraction that would draw high-rollers from out of town, and fill Halifax’s world-class casino.

As I make my way up to the rotunda, the building’s exterior is so dimly lit it almost blends in with the concrete curves of the Cogswell Interchange.

Nobody’s going to mistake it for Las Vegas.

Inside, machines with names like Adorned Peacock, Fort Knox and Goddess of Gold entice gamblers, and the atmosphere is punctuated by the occasional tinkling noise of success.

The mood isn’t exactly heady with excitement — though I do stumble onto two 20-something men doing key bumps in the bathroom. After they see me, they scurry somewhat embarrassed out into the crowd.

Kevin, who is working the bar, says the biggest tip he’s made here is about $150, on a large cheque. He makes me a $7.50 spicy Caesar. I only tip him a dollar because I’m losing on the penny slots. But winners, he says, tip even worse.

It seems like nobody is too lucky tonight. A fitting metaphor for Nova Scotia’s casinos.

The main entrance to the Halifax casino is tucked behind the Cogswell interchange. Photo: Halifax Examiner

The sell: bringing in tourists and lowering the deficit

The province began entertaining the thought of legalizing casinos 45 years ago. But the first one didn’t open until June 1, 1995 and even then a large swath of the population wasn’t happy about it. 

In a 1993 poll, 57.7% of respondents were against introducing casinos, and a petition circulated by a group called People Against Casinos in Nova Scotia garnered 50,000 signatures. “There are hordes of reports, and literally thousands of pages of information that show that the negative effects (of casinos) outweighed the positive ones,” Ian Coll, the group’s spokesperson, told The Daily News.

The Standing Committee on Community Services heard concerns about the “potential for negative impact on individuals, families and society” and recommended against opening casinos or increasing gambling levels in the province.

A common theme in Nova Scotian life is politicians trying to find “the thing” that will turn the economy around, and, regardless of what the population thought, the casino idea seemed to be the latest in a long line of potential saviours. With the province showing a deficit of $235,071,000 for the 1994-95 fiscal year, a call for proposals went out for casinos in Halifax and Sydney. The province anticipated at least $50 million a year in provincial revenue from them.

American economics professor and gambling expert William Eadington (he’s in the Gaming Hall of Fame) wrote in his 1999 paper “The Economics of Casino Gambling” that casinos are legalized as a means to a “higher purpose.”

In Nova Scotia’s case, that purpose was to attack the deficit.

The province was supposed to see other benefits too. The casino pitch was candy-coated as a job creation and economic development tool — one that would also bring a potential tourism boost.

Additional tourists coming to the province, leaving their money and taking any gambling problems back home with them. What’s not to like? For decades, this was an appealing proposition, and one communities across North America were now buying into.

But there are only so many tourists, and as more and more gambling palaces opened, the idea that a casino would be enough to draw more visitors to Nova Scotia seemed like a stretch.

In fact, the Standing Committee on Community services cautioned against exactly this kind of thinking in their 1993 report:

“While gambling has raised interest, there is little substantiated evidence, as shown by other casino gaming operations in Canada, that casinos will significantly improve the levels of tourist traffic…

“It seems likely that as each new casino is established in North America, and particularly on the eastern seaboard and coast, the opportunity for generating government revenue from adding one more casino will be reduced.”

ITT Sheraton operated Nova Scotia’s first casino. The company estimated that out-of-province gamblers would each generate $67 in revenue per visit, and that in its first year, 427,266 out-of-province visitors would produce a total of $28,626,826 in gaming revenue just from the Halifax casino. That represented 28% of the total estimated revenue — the rest being made up by locals playing the slots, blackjack and the other games on offer.  

So, the casinos were supposed to bring $50 million to provincial coffers (in mid-1990s dollars), with a significant chunk coming from out-of-province gamblers. How is that working out?

For the fiscal year ended March 31, 2019, gaming revenue from both casinos was $77,925,000. It averaged $81,272,550 between 1997 and 2019. But that’s before paying the operator and tallying operational costs. The average the province kept was $28,366,000 during that period — just over half of the projected $50 million.

We don’t know how much of this comes from tourists today. Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation (NSGC), the Crown corporation managing regulated gaming in the province, turned down an interview request for this story, forwarding it instead to the casino operator, Great Canadian Gaming Corporation (GCGC). GCGC didn’t respond to multiple interview requests.

But if we analyze casino revenues and compare them with key tourism indicators, it’s clear the casinos haven’t followed the same upward trend as tourism as a whole. While casino revenues are stagnant, the value of tourism in Nova Scotia has more than doubled, increasing from $1 billion in revenue when the casinos started to $2.6 billion last year.

It’s no secret revenues from VLTs, lottery tickets, and bingo come from locals by design. But casinos were supposed to cater to a wider audience, yet that’s never happened.

Over the last 15 years, NSGC business plans don’t mention tourism as one of their core revenue-generating strategies — and in the current plan, it’s not mentioned at all. There’s a shift now towards revenue maintenance, with casino earnings seen as less vital to the province.

And what about the deficit? For the last five fiscal years, Nova Scotia’s surpluses have been high enough you could subtract provincial casino revenue entirely while remaining in the black.

If casinos aren’t a tool for maximizing tourism and bringing in outside dollars, then they aren’t serving either of the higher purposes they were supposedly created for.

Instead, over the past 25 years Nova Scotia’s casinos have fuelled gambling addiction and economic drain, without any proof of the big payoff that was promised.

The view of the casino from the Halifax boardwalk. Photo: Halifax Examiner

Penny ante: “Little rinky-dink operations”

In 1975, D. Owen Carrigan authored a study called “Casino Gaming” for the province’s department of tourism. This was three years before the first legal casino opened on the Eastern seaboard, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. As Carrigan tells it, the primary goal was to increase tourism, not fight the deficit.

“I saw some beautiful operations in my study,” said the professor emeritus and former Saint Mary’s University president in a telephone interview from his Halifax home. “And I don’t think I saw any that couldn’t be duplicated at one level or another — small, medium, or large — here in Nova Scotia. It was never envisaged that we would put up these little rinky-dink operations… [with] no real program to attract international gamblers.”

That’s why Carrigan warns against comparing his original vision to what we have now. If you want international tourists, you’ve got to go big to attract them.

Carrigan’s report, available in the provincial legislative library, recommended government-run four-season resort casinos. “Facilities should include a shopping centre, marina for the boating enthusiasts, beach, campsite, heated swimming pools, picnic and hiking facilities,” he wrote.

The concept could have been introduced at established resorts like Digby Pines or Keltic Lodge. “A casino-resort-marina complex in Nova Scotia would be the only one of its kind in North America,” Carrigan wrote. “It’s the one thing Las Vegas can’t offer.”

Carrigan even estimated “a well run casino industry” could produce revenues in excess of the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission’s 1974 net profit of $33,137,552 (approximately $159,500,000 in today’s dollars).

But the idea was ahead of its time: North American casinos were still concentrated in Las Vegas. Maybe Nova Scotia could have achieved those outsized goals, but by the time it got in the game other provinces and U.S. states had the same idea.

Other early Nova Scotian casino proposals were similarly ambitious.

In 1992, Minnesota-based Grand Casinos proposed a massive $105 million, 359-acre resort in Ragged Lake Industrial Park, including a 160,000-square-foot casino, an 18-hole golf course and a 40-acre RV park.

The next year, the former Hilton hotel, (now the Westin Nova Scotian) proposed a 31,000-square-foot casino. It included a trolley system to encourage gamblers to explore downtown Halifax.

Both proposals were built around the expectation of bringing new tourists to the province: 380,000 new visitors in Grand’s case, and 165,000 for the Hilton, according to a report from Cooper & Lybrand consultants. These were serious numbers — respective increases of about 40% and 15% in tourism. The Hilton’s estimate seems more realistic — tourism can fluctuate by about 10% year-to-year. But Grand anticipated spending $10 million yearly on advertising, or double Nova Scotia’s tourism marketing spend at the time.

ITT Sheraton’s fellow finalists offered different visions as well. Casinos Austria, a finalist whose bid Carrigan consulted on, proposed a “European-flavored, $28-million casino on the Cable Wharf parking lot.” Another finalist, Harrah’s, wanted to build “a $105-million floating casino complex on the South Battery property below the Brewery Market.”

As North America’s casino industry grew, attracting outside tourists and their money was a common rationale for jurisdictions opening up new gaming facilities.

But despite the rosy projections, Dr. Robert Williams, a health sciences professor and gambling expert at the University of Lethbridge said in a phone interview it was “foolish” to think tourists would come to places like Halifax to gamble.

“The only jurisdictions in the world that attract out-of-jurisdiction visitors are Monaco, Macau, Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Everywhere else, including Nova Scotia, it’s all local people,” he said. “People forget the justification and are not interested in looking at whether the justifications were warranted. And they clearly weren’t.”

The result, Williams said, is casinos don’t generate a net wealth increase because the money comes from locals.

Nova Scotia’s publicly available gambling data is spotty, but what it does share bears out Williams’ view. A 2007 report commissioned by the province shows 95% of gambling revenues came from those who regularly gambled each month. In other words, locals. Furthermore, 39.2% of gambling expenditures came from the 6.1% of the population at risk for gambling addiction. A 2013 report found at risk-gamblers contributed 42% of provincial gambling revenues.

“It’s actually been cannibalized from other largely entertainment sectors of the economy,” Williams said. “It’s just a transfer of wealth from one sector to the other sector.”

Carrigan still believes Nova Scotia could have done better in attracting tourists, if it had approved a more ambitious submission from another casino operator. 

“If you want to attract tourists, you have to have something that’s really first class, high end — different,” he said. “At least something that’s a little different than other places.”

“If you want to attract tourists, you have to have something that’s really first class, high end — different,” he said. “At least something that’s a little different than other places.”

While ITT Sheraton’s original vision offered some unique elements, they were stripped away one by one before opening — from the crystal palace design to the proposed Vegas-style entertainment. NDP researcher Jane Wright (who years later operated Jane’s on the Common restaurant) went through six boxes of Sheraton’s proposal, unearthing the details of “Barnacle Pete’s Wharfside Revue” — which has been described as “a seafaring version of a Disneyland show” and would have featured “rowdy sailors, comedic acrobats, lively pirates and beautiful, buxom wenches.”

But the primary feature its proposal offered was quick cash — an income guarantee of $100 million, paid out at $25 million a year for the first four years — the government approved Boston-based ITT Sheraton as the province’s first casino operator. A pair of unremarkable urban casinos soon went up — one in the Sheraton hotel (now the Marriott) on the Halifax waterfront, and another attached to Sydney’s Centre 200. Carrigan said the only appeal either had was for locals.

ITT Sheraton didn’t even offer the best long-term financial deal, in terms of guaranteed income. After the decision was final, the Daily News reported the other two finalists offered more guaranteed money over the long term: $152 million over 15 years from Casinos Austria, and $300 million over 20 years from Harrah’s. But the Sheraton’s proposal promised a greater cut of net profits.

Carrigan said he doesn’t want to sound negative about the current casinos, “but I guess what disappoints me, even as just a John Q. Citizen, is that it could have been so much different and so much more.”

The approach to the Halifax casino from the waterfront boardwalk. Photo: Halifax Examiner

The Hustle: an endless stream of nonsense projections

Even though it’s midweek, the gaming floor at the Halifax casino is full of people testing their luck. The bar, where I’m sitting, is a nondescript affair with all the atmosphere of a Boston Pizza in an industrial park. And it’s nearly bare. Since you can tote your beverage to your game of choice, why waste your time just sitting around drinking?

Of the few people seated at the bar, most fixate on their phones. One defeated-looking man in a “Re-elect Colwell” hat watches football. Another quickly munches a deli sandwich.

Eventually a retail manager from out of province — I’ll call him Chuck — grabs a seat near me and we get to chatting. Chuck is here on business, and his travel plans mean he has to stay over an extra night. He says he’s spent about $300 on table games tonight, but is only about $35 ahead. A self-described former video lottery terminal addict, he reminisces about the dopamine hit that comes with a four-figure win and casually peppers our conversation with psychological terms. When I mention it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a casino, he asks if I used to have a gambling problem too. The truth is I’m just cheap, though at certain moments playing the machines I do get caught up in the excitement just enough to think my luck could change, and I understand the appeal a little better: a quick windfall on a bet. That seems to have been the province’s hope as well.

Halifax’s casino opened in summer 1995, in a temporary location inside the Sheraton.

The casino operators were so confident about throngs of gamblers, they didn’t even bother promoting it to tourists. A memo from the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation director of finance at the time, Sheila Butler, said Sheraton “had anticipated a deluge of visitors to the Casino so they felt that pre-opening marketing was not necessary to avoid having to turn people away from the casino.”

Sheraton didn’t present its first marketing plan until December 1995, claiming the bid and casino construction timelines prohibited them from meeting advertising deadlines.

When it was finally completed, the marketing plan stressed that to meet revenue goals, the casino would need to attract “high end” and “premium” players. High-end players spend $500 to $2,000 per visit, while those in the premium category spend $2,000 or more. Because early research showed Nova Scotians were spendthrifts on the gaming floor, this was practical. But it was also smart business: Sheraton said gaining one premium player offered a greater effect on casino revenues than raising the spend of 15 lower-tier players.

Additionally, rather than focus equal attention on Sydney’s casino, the bulk of the marketing and promotions hewed towards the larger-scale and more financially attractive operations in Halifax.

The casinos did succeed in hitting their foot-traffic targets the first year, but only took in about half the projected revenue. This is why, mere months after opening, the casinos were shedding jobs and the market’s potential was being reconsidered, according to Liberal MLA Ralph Fiske’s July 1998 testimony before the province’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts.

Within three months of opening, Sheraton was already having qualms about building a permanent casino. In December 1995, the company provided formal notice “that it did not consider a permanent casino to be appropriate or in the best interests of Nova Scotia,” Fiske testified at Public Accounts. “Instead they were promoting the idea of a down-scale casino to remain within the current hotel complex.”

Fiske, who died in 2017, said the NSGC rejected the first alternate proposal, but indicated it would consider approving others, if “convinced it was in the best interests of Nova Scotians.”

At this point, Nevada-based consultant Donald McGhie was hired to assess the options.

Given a lack of interest from locals in Vegas-style entertainment and lower-than-anticipated returns, Sheraton lobbied hard for an alternative casino, instead of building the freestanding one it had originally promised.

But McGhie felt there was a strong case for a larger casino. Even though it would cost $120 million to build, he stressed the difference in money coming in made a larger, permanent casino more advantageous.

McGhie’s break-even calculations suggested even if the new, permanent casino only earned $82,500,000 a year, revenues would be on par with expectations of the smaller, hotel-based casino.

But he was convinced it could earn more.

“In addition, if the Permanent Casino had gaming revenue of $100,000,000, NSGC would receive an amount equal to the current income guarantee of $25,000,000 from just the Halifax Casino,” he wrote.

In McGhie’s view, a larger casino was the only way to get the high-end players who were going to help boost revenues. After tense, protracted negotiations, a $92 million “country club-style” casino without all the Vegas-style attractions was announced in October 1997.

The next year, as ground broke, The Daily News reported that senior vice-president and general manager of Sheraton Casinos Nova Scotia, Mel Thomas, predicted “the permanent casino will double its revenues, surpassing $100 million per year after the first five years of operation.” It was stressed the province would get a cut of $50 million a year by 2005 and it wasn’t spending a penny on the construction.

Of course, there was a trade-off. The province wasn’t spending anything on construction, but this meant it was foregoing millions in revenues over a period of seven years.

In April 2000, Marie Mullally, the newly appointed CEO of NSGC, spoke with The Daily News about how the new facility would impact profits. “It’s going to take a fairly significant chunk of the income that we would get from the Halifax facility,” Mullally said. “But, following the seven years, we’ll be getting a significant return from this investment.” (Mullally continued as CEO of the NSGC for 10 years; she is now president and CEO of Credit Union Atlantic. She declined an interview request for this story.)

Not only did the province approve the more expensive permanent casino, in October 1998, the provincial government also announced changes to attract tourists, including the high-rollers the marketing plan was counting on. These included complimentary alcohol in a private, high-limit room, moving to 24-hour operations, and providing credit for out-of-province guests.

“We want to focus less on Nova Scotian players and more on the out-of-province, high-end player,” said Don Downe, the finance minister at the time. “These regulations give Nova Scotia the ability to compete on a level playing-field with other casinos in Ontario, Quebec and along the eastern seaboard of the United States.”

In its 1998 year-end report, NSGC also suggested providing casino junkets — complimentary trips offered to high-end gamblers — and increasing their number once the permanent casino had been built.

Because both NSGC and current casino operator Great Canadian Gaming Corporation refused interviews for this story, I couldn’t ask about junkets. But I did speak with a casino consultant who has extensive experience in the Canadian industry, and who would only agree to be quoted anonymously, because of their ongoing work in the field. They said casinos like the one in Halifax — in other words urban Canadian casinos not attached to resorts — “don’t have the amenities or the wherewithal to make the properties interesting to those customers in the first place.” Additionally, they said the expense of hosting a junket, which includes gratuities as well as compensating the junket organizer, is high.

The casinos failed to draw tourists, but the new rules had an impact on Nova Scotians. Local gamblers could now make high-stakes bets and gamble all night.

Halifax’s permanent casino opened on the waterfront on April 24, 2000. Despite all the hopes, it has never brought in more than $100 million a year. Between fiscal 2002-2003 and 2007-2008, Halifax’s casino earned between $71.2 and $75.3 million per year. And this was in the early years, when the novelty factor might be expected to drive some traffic.

We don’t know how much the Halifax casino earns now, because after 2008, NSGC started bundling net revenue figures from both casinos in its reports. Those combined revenues have never surpassed $100 million annually though — Sheraton’s optimistic target for Halifax alone.

The waterfront “Seawalk Stage” is a small rotunda next to the casino that is rarely used even in the best of times. Photo: Halifax Examiner
The waterfront “Seawalk Stage” is a small rotunda next to the casino that is rarely used even in the best of times. Photo: Halifax Examiner

Shell Game: Tourists? What tourists?

Even before Halifax’s permanent casino opened, the claims around drawing tourists started to be soft-pedalled.

A 1996 Daily News story says:

People won’t come to Nova Scotia specifically to gamble, [Sheraton Casinos Nova Scotia manager Mel] Thomas says, but the casinos will prompt some people to vacation here.

“Our goal is to try and attract tourist players who do like to game and have a gaming budget,” he says. “That’s really our potential, and our ability to grow that type of market is going to be our long-term validity.”

This strategy was a huge shift from specifically trying to draw tourists. It meant, in part, that it became less easy to identify how vital the casino was to travellers’ decisions to come here.

Peter McKenna, a political science professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, who has written a book on VLT gaming in Atlantic Canada, says the connection between tourism and government is an important one to understand, and should make us skeptical of broad claims about the impact of casinos on tourism.

“Tourism operators are inextricably tethered to the government,” McKenna told me. “They’re connected and also TIANS, the lobby group for the tourism sector in Nova Scotia, is also closely aligned and works very closely with the government. So they’re gonna be singing the same tune as the government. The government says it’s good for tourism, we’ll say it’s good tourism.”

Judith Cabrita served as executive director of the Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia (TIANS) between 1990 and 2000. She said in a phone interview that she had supported the casino project “not only because it was going to draw people, but you know, it’s like the way back in the ‘70s when you were marketing your accommodation — if you had a swimming pool, that put you in an upper echelon of quality. And I felt the casino would do that for Halifax.”

Ultimately though, she thinks the casino had “a much larger impact with the local economy,” in part because of the way it was promoted.

“I felt that it wasn’t marketed as part of the whole picture of Nova Scotia, highlighted in the language that was going out of Nova Scotia,” she said.

The current TIANS director of professional development and industry relations, Lisa Dahr, calls the casinos “an important part of the tourism infrastructure within the province,” citing their role as event venues as well as places to gamble. But she’s not sure if they drive a significant number of outside visitors here.

To determine that, we’d need to see some statistics.

Both Cabrita and Dahr encouraged me to contact Crown corporation Tourism Nova Scotia for the figures. Tourism Nova Scotia in turn directed me to the 2009-2018 statistics on its website, saying older figures were unavailable. After its research team “went digging” they were able to share stats from 2000-2008. “We do not have indicators prior to 2000,” tourism spokesperson Zandra Alexander said in an email.

The Crown corporation calls visitor exit surveys “a key information source” for itself and industry stakeholders, but only made available results from four of the last 25 years. Those survey responses suggest tourist interest in casino gambling has declined over time.

In a 2000 visitor exit survey I found elsewhere, 17% of tourists surveyed said they had visited the casino. By 2004, that had dropped slightly, to 16.1%.

The number had dropped even further by 2010, to 10%, then 6% in 2015.

There was no mention of tourist visits to the casinos in the 2017 survey, the most recent available.

Overall, the number of people coming to Nova Scotia has gone up, and so has the amount they are spending.

In 1994, 1,127,000 tourists visited Nova Scotia, spending $880 million. Last year, there were 2.3 million non-resident overnight visitors who spent an estimated $2.64 billion.

Yet in recent NSGC business plans, tourism only gets a passing mention — when it’s mentioned at all.

The NSGC assumed that casino revenue would mirror tourism visits. If tourism was up, casino revenue from visitors would be too. But if we plot tourism figures over a 10-year period versus net casino revenues, tourism trends upward, while revenues go down.

The province is committed to boosting tourism revenues to $4 billion by 2024, but there’s no proof this growth is having any impact on casino revenues. Instead of casinos, Nova Scotia is now pitching a whole different set of experiences.

The waterside entrance to the Halifax casino. Photo: Halifax Examiner

Doubling down: From gaming floors to golf courses

Chuck’s gaze strays over my shoulder several times during our conversation, to a slot machine singing above the din.

The woman playing the machine sits quietly in front of it, dressed entirely in white, a pricey silver Tory Burch bag nestled in her lap. And she’s unmistakably on a roll. As Chuck and I part company, he impulsively takes a seat at the machine next to her.

I return a few minutes later, worried about distracting the woman, and ask if she has a strategy. There isn’t one, she says, but she’s still won $1,000 in the last hour or so. She doesn’t mention how much she’s spent.

“Any win is a good win,” she says, pressing buttons like an automaton.

Chuck is gone. Apparently, her luck didn’t rub off on him.

One of the main objectives in Tourism Nova Scotia’s 2018-2023 strategic plan is to provide “world-class” experiences to draw tourists. Cabot Links, the Inverness golf resort opened in July 2011, has received wide acclaim. The burgeoning craft beer and spirits industry can also appeal to well-heeled tourist crowds, not to mention the province’s coastal trails and natural wonders.

It’s tough to shoehorn the casinos, in their current state, into a “world-class” offering. This may be why there is no listing for casinos under “Things to Do” on the Tourism Nova Scotia website. A search for the word “casino” at Tourism N.S. brings up two pages of hits, including the Sydney Travelodge and the East Coast Craft Beer Festival — but no information on the casinos themselves. 

Another of Tourism Nova Scotia’s objectives is “[maximizing] the value of tourism to the economy of the province.”

When I asked Dahr how to best measure tourism’s impact on the province, she suggested using the multiplier effect of tourist dollars, as opposed to overall visitor numbers or revenues.

“One of the things that we’ve encouraged our stakeholders to really consider is that when $1.00 gets spent in tourism on Main Street somewhere, it actually generates $3.20 in the community,” Dahr said, adding that figure may have gone even higher in recent years.

But the dollars spent by those tourists who do visit the casinos lack the same impact. Casino operator Great Canadian Gaming’s most recent annual report says 52.24% of total gaming revenue, plus 47.76% of non-gaming revenue, after deductions for capital reserve and marketing fund contributions, flows out of province to the company.

The province originally intended to take over the casinos at some point and run them itself, but it never exercised that option. If the provincial government ran the casinos it would be able to keep all revenue, plus monitor expenses more closely, and use its purchasing power and economies of scale to find cost-saving efficiencies.

The GCGC contract runs to 2025.

The province most recently extended that contract in 2014. A year later, the company purchased Casino New Brunswick in Moncton, which is a competitor with Casino Nova Scotia, since it is more accessible to out-of-province tourists from New Brunswick and PEI, as well those crossing the New Brunswick-Maine border. We don’t know how much that has cut into Nova Scotia’s share of tourists. GCGC doesn’t care about that though. As long as people are playing, it doesn’t matter if the revenues are from locals or tourists. Besides, Great Canadian Gaming’s three Atlantic properties, in Sydney, Halifax, and Moncton, together only accounted for $96.2 million, or about 7% of the company’s revenue in 2019.

None of this is to say the province doesn’t earn any money from casinos. It still gets a sizable annual cut: $29,943,000 in 2019, which looks good on a balance sheet.

But if most of the money is recycled from residents, and part of that is siphoned off to an operator before we get it, is the current system really worth it? Would it make sense to take casino operations in-house and see if they can be improved? And if that’s not effective, maybe it’s time to close them and focus on areas of higher return. 

Carrigan still thinks chasing tourist dollars is a gamble the province should take.

“The opportunities that you have now are way better than they were in my day when I was active with this stuff,” he said. But in order to take advantage of those opportunities, the casinos would have to be completely re-imagined from the ground up, run solely by the government and designed with tourists in mind.

“A first class operation, a real classy thing that people can be proud of,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

The consultant I spoke with, however, wouldn’t bet it on it.

They couldn’t name a single Canadian casino redevelopment which increased profits and tourism substantially at established facilities. At best, they said, upgrading Nova Scotia’s casinos would have an impact on the frequency of visits and spending from local customers.

“Nobody can provide you with any kind of quantifiable data in the last 30 years that show an increase in tourism that is directly attributable to the casino in Halifax,” they said. “It’s simply just not a thing.”

Rob Csernyik is a freelance journalist who was born and raised in Nova Scotia. He has written for The Globe and Mail, The New Republic, Quartz at Work and Vice and edits Great Canadian Longform.

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  1. I moved back to Sydney in the early 90’s just when the Casino was opening. I occasionally do a walk about in the Sydney Casino and I can tell they’re no high rollers to be seen. Just pensioners dumping their munch needed pension money. The overall effect on our community has been devastating with the Casino leaving nothing but shuttered businesses and a broken people. Any money garnered leaves the local area in taxes back to the provincial government or the Great Canadian Gaming Co. back to BC. What little is left is paid in meager wages to the hard working staff. A sad sad gamble for something that wasn’t wanted or needed in the first place.

  2. Excellent article. Thanks as always for the important work you do.

    We gambled on casinos and nobody won. We gambled on the convention centre and nobody won. Maybe we should stop trying to be someplace else, and just be ourselves. That’s pretty damn awesome and it makes a lot more sense… and probably more dollars too

    1. I think a handful of people “win” on these projects. Definitely the managerial class that gets paid to promote them, and sometimes the developers and businesspeople. I don’t know if Joe Ramia is winning or not, but I think even if the Nova Centre is a financial turkey, he probably walks away mostly unscathed.