British Columbia

Entrepreneur says retro laws keep retro arcades from succeeding in Lower Mainland

An entrepreneur wants the City of New Westminster to give quarter to retro arcades. He wants to start one in his hometown but says New Westminster bylaws, similar to those in other Metro Vancouver cities, make that impractical.

New Westminster considering easing rules, would be first local city to do so in decades

A collection of retro arcade machines. A local entrepreneur wants New Westminster to buck a decades-long local trend and reduce restrictions on arcades so he can open an arcade cafe or gaming bar. (Julie van Rosendaal)

An entrepreneur wants New Westminster to give retro arcades an extra life by changing bylaws that restrict their existence.

Brad Eyers wants to turn his passion for — and large collection of — classic games like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Galaga into a business by opening a retro arcade in the city he grew up in.

Currently, arcades are only permitted in a few specific locations like malls and movie theatres, but Eyers wants to open a smaller arcade cafe or gaming bar, the sort of thing that's proven popular in Seattle and Portland.

"I just want to share them with people," he said. "New Westminster's a great, central location. I like the retro buildings and I thought it could help revitalize the downtown.

"I'm 45 years old, and I want to gear it towards 35-to-50-year-olds, but I want them to be able to introduce them to their families. I want kids to be there."

While arcades might be thought of as a harmless distraction for young people and nerds, they are subject to quite stringent regulations in many Metro Vancouver municipalities.

'Archaic' bylaws

Those regulations vary widely: Delta charges business owners $23 per machine per year, Port Coquitlam allows none at all. And, Vancouver's bylaw forbids anyone under the age of 18 from entering an arcade.

Local restrictions on arcades largely came into effect in the 80s and 90s and stem from fears they encouraged truancy and crime. (Pokey's Pinball Cafe/Facebook)

Downtown New West BIA executive director Kendra Johnston supports Eyers's idea, and says the city's "archaic" bylaws need to change.

In particular, she and Eyers want arcades to be able to sell alcohol.

"We're seeing province-wide liquor laws are changing, relaxing, and we're sort of catching up to the rest of the country," she said. "These are very civilized changes to the liquor laws … [the gaming bar idea] might work very well in an entertainment district like downtown New West."

'Hypnotic, quarter-gobbling machines'

New Westminster city planner Rupinder Basi says the regulations in his city are mostly because of noise issues, but newspapers in the 80s and 90s, when many anti-arcade regulations were developed, were full of stories about their seedy undersides.

"The boys are cursing and shouting encouragement as they hop about on Puma-soled feet," a 1982 Globe and Mail editorial read. "Many have dollar bills clutched in their hands, eager to exchange them for fries and change to feed the hypnotic, quarter-gobbling machines."

Arcades that serve food and alcohol have become popular in places like Seattle and Portland. (CBC)

Lawyer Jon Festinger, who specializes in video game law, says there are many good reasons to restrict certain types of businesses, but moral panic may be at least in part responsible for arcade bylaws.

"There used to be a lot of belief, decades ago, that hoodlums were hanging around in game parlours," he said. "I think we've generally seen there isn't evidence of that notion … it's faded in the last few years because I think there's been more research.

"Everything from newspapers to radio to television have gone through this. [They] fade as soon as the next moral panic, the greater moral panic shows up."

Press start to continue

Basi says the rules around arcades, which are like pawn shops and liquor stores in terms of restrictiveness, are ripe for change.

However, an attempt to change those bylaws last Monday ended in game over — for now — when proposed changes were met with negative feedback from both the BIA and Eyers who both felt the bylaws were still too restrictive, especially as they continued to forbid alcohol.

Director of planning Jackie Teed says as this is the first local attempt to loosen arcade restrictions in decades it was important "to get it right."

She says staff will try to have new proposed bylaws in the summer, but Eyers says he has been working with the city for almost a year on finding a solution, and is thinking about moving on.

"I have a family. I need to generate an income," he said. "My wife and I have already started looking at other cities in the Lower Mainland. Unless they can get this done real quick, there's very little possibility that I open up in New Westminster."