Vaccine progress raises optimism of casino owner

Monday 11th January 2021

The Powerball slot machine that made two Prince George players instant millionaires two summers ago stands silent at Treasure Cove Casino. Rows of machines have been broken up to create pods with plastic shields to keep players physically distant once the casino reopens.

There's an eerie quiet that's crept into the Treasure Cove Casino these days.

The huge parking lot that borders Highway 16 and 97 is empty, aside from the odd transport truck whose driver pulls off the road to try to get some sleep.

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On the casino floor, the slot machines and the chimes, bells and electronic beeps they're known for in pre-pandemic times stand silent, with not a soul in sight to bring them back to life with the drop of a coin.

Nobody's calling out bingo games, the brakes are on the roulette wheels and no poker decks are being shuffled. It's been that way even since mid-March, when COVID came to Canada and closed every casino in the province.

"It's up to the lottery commission and the province to decide if we're allowed to open, I expect when we do open we will probably open with limited capacity," said Treasure Cove owner John Major.

"I have no idea when that will be and I don't want to guess. Maybe we'll be shut down until it doesn't matter anymore."

Until the green light is given by the provincial health office, the 250 Treasure Cove employees won't be back at their jobs, aside from the lone security officer who watches over the place. Major said some of his staff have found other employment but most are still collecting employment insurance.

"It's not so important when we open, what is important is safety and everybody's health," he said.

"They will keep extending (income assistance programs) until we get past this. It's just a matter of time. I'm just very happy there are vaccines that have been developed. The Johnson and Johnson vaccine they expect in February to be approved and that's a single-dose vaccine that doesn't need extra cooling for storage. It would be a different issue if they didn't have vaccine for it."

The rows of slot machines that dominate the landscape on the casino floor have been broken up into pods, with plastic shields installed on either side of the chairs where slot players will eventual sit to keep players separated. The temporary configuration requires much more space and the machines now take up the areas where bingo and card games were played, as well as the casino's original lounge/conference area.

The pandemic stalled plans to complete the Treasure Cove's new show lounge, a project that was started two years ago in response to growing demand for more multi-purpose space. Originally expected to be finished by the late fall, construction was put on hold over the summer with business at a complete standstill and no sign of the virus going away any time soon.

"We put everything on hold, (the pandemic) froze all of our ideas," said Major.

The lounge expansion will significantly increase seating capacity beyond the 200-seat facility it will eventually replace at Treasure Cove. That should allow the city to attract more A-list entertainers and musicians known to frequent the casino circuit in larger cities before the COVID shutdown. But there's no rush to have the lounge finished with touring acts held back by travel bans and physical distancing measures expected to continue well into the year, which would severely limit crowd sizes for concerts or shows.

Major wants the show lounge expansion and its better acoustics and lighting to provide local artists a modern venue designed to showcase their talents, as they used to in the original lounge. Treasure Cove will also continue to provide show lounge space for conferences and for charitable events that in the past have helped families raise money to pay for hospital stays outside of the city.

When it is open, the games of chance the casino provides are a huge draw for people. In 2019-20, revenues at Treasure Cove Casino hit $50.9 million - the ninth-most lucrative of 17 casinos in the province, according to a B.C. Lottery Corporation report released in September. Of that total, $45.6 million came from the slots, $43.17 million was from bingo (tops in B.C.) and table games provided $2.16 million.

Treasure Cove generated $14.2 million on operator commissions in 2019-20.

Major, an accountant from Winnipeg, started out as a bingo operator in 1985 when he and his wife Shelley moved to Prince George from Manitoba.

They opened Good Time Bingo in the basement of the building on Fourth Avenue between Brunswick and Quebec streets and a year later opened Wagers Casino on the ground floor of the Ramada Hotel at Fifth and George. In April 1998 the Majors opened Casino Hollywood in the adjacent Coronet movie theatre site and they operated it along with two downtown bingo halls. Treasure Cove doubled its casino capacity when it opened at its current site on Sept. 16, 2004. In 2010, Treasure Cove opened its bingo expansion when Chances Good Time Prince George moved out its Seventh Avenue downtown location.

On July 13, 2019, Treasure Cove paid out Canada's highest-ever slot machine payday when Marlyne Dumoulin of Prince George bet $3 and it paid a $2.15 million Powerbucks prize. Six weeks later, Britanny Hammell of Prince George won $1.06 million tapping the same Powerbucks national jackpot.

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