VLTs: savior or scourge?

They are seen by some as the economic salvation of hotels in rural Manitoba. Others view them as a scourge upon the province, something that should be wiped out.

Video lottery terminals were introduced to southwestern Manitoba in late 1991. They soon spread across the province, becoming a mainstay of hotels large and small.

Lucie Rodrigue and her husband own a hotel at Somerset, Man. When they bought the hotel five years ago, it already had VLTs. The revenue from those machines played a big part in their decision to buy the business.

“They’ve done a lot for us,” she said, noting that revenue from the VLTs almost pays their mortgage.

Similar stories are shared across Manitoba. VLTs have put the ledgers of many rural hotels back in the black.

“It has saved the rural hotel industry,” said John Read, executive vice-president of the Manitoba Hotel Association.

Close to $50 million was paid out in commissions to places housing VLTs in the 1997-98 fiscal year. There are now almost 5,000 machines registered provincewide.

But while VLTs are a boon to some people, they are a bane to others. People such as Everet Busink hold a dim view of the money-gobbling devices.

Busink, who represents the Christian Reformed Church in Brandon, Man., thinks it is reprehensible for the government to be in the gaming business. He helped lead the charge a decade ago to keep a casino out of Brandon.

Busink described VLTs as a “parasitic response” to the government’s need for money.

A similar view is held by the Brandon Ministerial Association, which wants the machines outlawed in Manitoba.

The association’s president knows what the government-sanctioned gambling can do to people’s lives.

“People are spending money they cannot afford to spend,” said pastor Greg Foley. “It hurts them, it hurts their family and it hurts the kids.”

The Addictions Foundation of Manitoba works with hundreds of people each year who are affected by problem gambling. The majority of those problems stem from VLTs.

Financial ruin and family breakdowns are some of the worst hardships brought on by gambling, said Gerry Kolesar of the addictions foundation. People have invested life savings in the pursuit of a gambling windfall.

“Most of the people who come to us have been driven in by financial losses,” said Kolesar. “If people were making money at this, they wouldn’t be coming to see us.”

But the province points to the upside of the industry. The Manitoba Lotteries Corporation pumps 10 percent of net revenues from VLTs into the coffers of municipalities.

Another 25 percent of the revenue goes into Manitoba’s rural and urban communities for economic development.

The rest of the earnings flow into the province’s general revenues, to be spent according to the government’s budget priorities.

Net revenue from the province’s VLTs in the 1997-98 fiscal year was $121.3 million.

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