The Pas braces for another blow as casino looks to relocate

A northern Manitoba town is facing another big blow to its economy, days after its biggest employer announced it will close down.

News comes just 4 days after Tolko Industries announced it, too, will shut down operations

A spokesperson for Aseneskak Casino said it isn't viable in the current location and will shut its doors in two years. (Google Street View)

A northern Manitoba town is facing another big blow to its economy, days after its biggest employer announced it will close down.

The Aseneskak Casino will likely pull up stakes and relocate to a larger market in the province, a casino spokesperson said. The casino, which employs 147 people, is in Opaskwayak Cree Nation, a reserve that abuts The Pas.

Suzanne Barbeau-Bracegirdle, CEO of the casino, which opened in 2002, said it isn't viable in the current location and will shut its doors in two years.

"The market just isn't here. We have 600 game machines that we can use [but] we are presently using only 172. We are only using six table games and we have the capacity for 30," she said.

"We have to look at the economic benefit of the casino, which is a business that's run by six First Nations. We want to make sure they get their investment."

Before any move can happen, there must be written approval from the province, according to Heather Stefanson, minister responsible for the Manitoba Liquor and Gaming Authority.

"Aseneskak Casino has a Gaming Agreement with the government of Manitoba and the Manitoba Liquor and Gaming Authority," Stefanson said in an emailed statement. "The number, size and location of casinos are negotiated between First Nations and the provincial government." 

If the move is approved, Barbeau-Bracegirdle is unsure how many employees will lose their jobs because she hopes some will relocate with the casino.

The news comes just four days after Tolko Industries announced it will shut its mill, the largest employer in The Pas, on Dec. 2, 2016. The forestry products company employs 332 people in The Pas, a town of about 5,500 people.

And just last month, OmniTrax announced it is closing down the Port of Churchill and cutting in half freight service on the Hudson Bay rail line. The rail line runs from The Pas to Churchill, and the loss of Churchill's largest employer will also have ripple effects in The Pas.

The Pas Mayor Jim Scott said 75 to 80 people in his town work for the rail line.

He hopes the decision to relocate the casino can at least be reversed, so some jobs in the community can be spared.

"I think there's opportunity. There's tourism opportunities we haven't fully looked at," he said.

"I know OCN just recently bought a bus company. So they now own a few buses. So let's see if we can organize a few tours to bring people here."

Barbeau-Bracegirdle doesn't believe there is much hope for the casino to stay put.

"We spend a lot of money trying to attract new people to come to the casino but the market just doesn't sustain the revenue that we require," she said. "There are less than 5,000 people in the area. We need to relocate to a bigger market."

Research done before the casino opened indicated there would be support but other factors came into play that impacted the business, Barbeau-Bracegirdle said.

"We had issues that were put on the casino, such as banning smoking, that hurt our bottom line," she said, adding it has been losing money for the past five years.

The province is currently conducting a broader review of the implications of relocated or expanded gaming in Manitoba, Stefanson added.