It’s been nearly 30 years since VLTs first came to your neighbourhood pub in Alberta.
Today nearly 6,000 of the electronic gambling machines are in more than 800 bars and lounges across the province, with the exception of nine communities that banned them more than 20 years ago.
The province first introduced Albertans to the video lottery terminal in 1991.
Within a year, thousands of the gambling machines sat in rows in smoky barrooms across the province.
By 1998, the same year Maclean’s magazine labelled VLTs “the devil’s television,” controversy in Alberta surrounding the machines and their addictive properties had come to a head.
Thirty-seven municipalities held plebiscites. Ten communities banned them.
A lot has changed since then — casinos dot the landscape; online gambling is readily available. And you can no longer light up in a bar.
Stony Plain, Sylvan Lake, Lacombe, Cardston, Coaldale, Canmore and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo still have VLT bans in place, as does the Municipal District of Opportunity in northern Alberta.
But as has happened before, bans on VLTs are always up for debate.
In April of this year, Rocky Mountain House made a change. Twenty-two years after banning the machines, town council repealed its bylaw, allowing VLTs into their community once again.
There had been no plebiscite, no loud opposition — just a meeting in March where one person spoke in favour of the ban and two others said it should be dropped.
That was a notable change from 1997, when religious leaders had pushed for a vote to rid the town of the machines. The issue arose again in 2009, leading to another plebiscite, but the ban remained in place.
Paula Anderson co-owns Rockies Lounge with her husband Larry Dunn. Anderson approached town council several times over the past four years to talk about repealing the ban.
“We were expecting quite a bit of backlash from the public, because VLTs is kind of a controversial subject and not a lot of people showed up at the meeting.” Anderson told CBC’s Edmonton AM.
“It was advertised, [the public forum] was there for people to go and voice their opinion and it didn’t happen.”
Mayor Tammy Burke said council didn’t take the move lightly.
‘So many things have changed’
“[With] the plebiscite happening 22 years ago, they thought they got rid of them forever and I respect that, I really do,” Burke said. “But we looked at these current trends right now and the fact that, you know, things — so many things — have changed.”
Burke said the focus should be on providing help to problem gamblers. Anyone who wants to gamble could find a VLT just a few kilometres away from Rocky Mountain House, she said.
Two other Alberta communities — Stony Plain, west of Edmonton, and Coaldale, near Lethbridge — are also looking again at existing VLT bans.
Like Rocky Mountain House, Stony Plain and Coaldale both previously held plebiscites that led to bans being left in place. But now the machines are up for debate again in the communities.
Stony Plain began to explore the issue again last fall. Businesses were asked if they felt VLTs would be good or bad for business. Six of seven businesses surveyed thought VLTs would be good.
Residents of the town can now complete an online survey about VLTs.
Mayor William Choy said council will look at all the options, including what Rocky Mountain House has done. Survey results are expected in late summer. A public hearing might be held in the fall, Choy said.
Bubbling below the surface
Coaldale’s second plebiscite was in 2017. The ban remained in place after a tight vote — 1,113 in favour, and 1,100 against.
Ken Schmidt purchased the shuttered Coaldale Inn four years ago and reopened it with a bar and grill. He has been lobbying the municipality to overturn the ban ever since.
Schmidt owned a restaurant in Medicine Hat for 20 years with about 25 machines.
“The difference in the revenue with machines and without, and the ability to hire more staff and pay the bills and just have a more successful business,” he said. “The VLTs are very, very, very important.”
Schmidt believes the machines are sometimes the difference between people coming to stay, eat and drink at his hotel or moving 10 minutes down the road to Lethbridge, where the machines are allowed.
Coaldale Mayor Kim Craig said he’ll be keeping an eye on the discussions in Stony Plain and looking at what happened in Rocky Mountain House.
“You don’t necessarily want to see it raising its head every few years, so it would be nice to find a way to put it to rest for a while,” Craig said. “It’s been about four years that it’s been bubbling under the surface.”
A provincial issue
The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo voted for a ban on VLTs in 1998, but never enacted a bylaw.
In 2004 the Wood Buffalo Hospitality Group challenged the ban, asking for another plebiscite. The municipality declined to hold a vote, ruling that VLTs come under provincial jurisdiction.
In Rocky Mountain House, Anderson is now working to get some machines into her lounge.
She knows there is controversy around the decision. “Some people have contacted us personally and we’re getting both negative feedback and positive feedback,” she said.
Burke, the mayor of Rocky Mountain House, said she understands the debate.
“The reason they were taken out of town was there were some major issues that happened here 20 some years ago, some major addictions,” she said.
“Nobody wants that in your community … but you want to also be able to be fair to everybody. This is not something we took lightly, and I’m sure these other communities are saying the same thing.”