Blue Sky Bingo fighting for survival

North Bay Nugget

The paper-based hall is one of 10 in Ontario denied permission to offer cGaming

Blue Sky Bingo has launched the campaign Save Blue Sky Bingo from closing following Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation’s decision to exclude 10 halls from cGaming. The owners of the North Bay hall say cGaming allows a greater selection of games, as well as larger prizes and jackpots. Jennifer Hamilton-McCharles / The Nugget

Blue Sky Bingo will be forced to close if the hall isn’t given access to cGaming.

That’s the message on posters taped on doors and walls throughout the bingo hall, as well as on postcards spread on tables.

The possible closing of the Airport Road facility was a hot topic at the bingo hall over the weekend as customers questioned staff and volunteers about the campaign Save Blue Sky Bingo from closing.

Blue Sky Bingo is one of 10 halls in Ontario denied permission to offer cGaming, which would give customers a greater selection of games, as well as larger prizes and jackpots..

“We’ve been eliminated from being put on a level playing field and we don’t know why,” says Blue Sky Bingo owner John Rinn

“We pay the same registration fees as all halls in Ontario to keep our doors open and, at this time, we don’t know why we’re being left out. OLG (Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation) has given us no explanation. But if we’re not allowed to compete, we will get crushed.”

Rinn said cGaming would generate more than double what the hall is currently bringing in, which would be great for the city and for the 50 not-for-profit charities which benefit from bingo.

He said the hall also would be looking to double its employees from 30.

According to the bingo hall, more than $1.2 million was dispersed to local charities in 2017. As well, the hall spends $250,000 annually on local advertising, $93,660 on provincial licence fees and $153,235 on municipal licence fees.

Blue Sky has been a major sponsor for several community events such as the 2018 Ford World Women’s Curling Championship.

The option to offer more games at the bingo hall comes at a time when construction of a casino is imminent.

Last year, Gateway Casinos and Entertainment Limited announced it plans to open a casino in North Bay in the first quarter of 2020.

The 37,000-square-foot Cascades Casino will offer 14,100 square feet of gaming space including 300 clot machines and 10 table games.

It’s also planning to build a MATCH Eatery & Public House and The Buffet restaurant.

The combined project is expected to cost about $31.3 million.

Geoff Whitteker, co-owner of Blue Sky Bingo, said North Bay’s desire to have a casino will have a profound impact on the bingo hall, but cGaming would have helped.

He said Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli could have intervened.

“Mr. Fedeli could have at least called OLG and find out why were weren’t included, because it’s not right.”

Fedeli said OLG is in the process of introducing a new electronic bingo system to 37 bingo halls that currently offer electronic bingo. Bingo halls that do not currently offer electronic bingo will be able to explore options with OLG to introduce similar systems, after the new cGaming bingo system is determined to be viable and fully operational.

“Our government has taken action to support charitable gaming. For example, charities are now allowed to run a wider variety of online and in-person electronic raffles. In the budget, we also promised to eliminate an unnecessary fee applied to the sale of break-open tickets, which will help charities throughout the province to save more than $4 million a year.

Fedeli said he understands the important contributions charitable gaming makes to local communities, and will continue to support these organizations.

“It’s my hope Blue Sky Bingo will continue to dialogue with OLG to find a solution moving forward.”

The Charity Gaming Federation of Ontario and Charitable Gaming and Bingo Innovation Association issued a 19-page document in March detailing how OLG dropped the ball on bingo.

“Whether purposefully or through negligence, we strongly believe that by including some halls in cGaming but excluding others, the OLG is choosing winners and losers; thereby deciding who will thrive and who will not survive.”

They also stated the implications are “catastrophic” and will result in the province losing out in more than $40 million in annual revenue, as many as 500 charities will lose their primary source of revenue, 10 halls will be forced out of business and hundreds of people will lose their jobs.

Tony Bitonti, senior manager of media relations for OLG, said OLG is aware of the renewed interest in the cGaming program from paper-based charitable bingo halls, “and in the coming months, we will assess how well the new model is working before we consider opening up the program to additional halls.

“We commit to maintaining an open dialogue with paper-based halls and their associations as we go through this transition period and assess the new model over the next 12 months,” he said.

“OLG has contractual and business relationships only with those halls that participate in the cGaming program and is currently going through a transition phase with those halls to implement a new business model.”

Bitonti said when OLG’s cGaming program first launched in 2011, all halls in Ontario were actively encouraged to participate.

In total, 37 halls in Ontario are currently participating in the cGaming program.

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