Under a blaze of fluorescent light on a dark-grey Thursday afternoon, a couple of dozen people sit scattered around tables in unit 401A at 7093 King George Blvd. It’s “Lucky 7” day at the Newton Community Gaming Centre, better known as a bingo hall, and hopes for a $580 jackpot are high among stone-faced regulars in the room.
“B-11,” calls a woman in a windowed corner booth, as a few of the players ink their cards with a dabber.
“G-46,” the caller drones a few moments later.
A woman yells “bingo!” with a hoot, and some others groan. The card is apparently a winner, but only one person in the room is anywhere near happy about it.
As April marches on, the bingo players here aren’t happy about much, as the hall they frequent is set to close – at the end of the business day on Saturday, April 21, to be exact.
Reason is, the lease of the facility is expiring later this year, and the gaming centre’s current owner, Gateway Casinos & Entertainment, plans to exit the location, effectively ending nearly a quarter-century of bingo games there.
Diane Bell bought $60 in cards from a relatively lonely cashier, who is seated behind a row of bars on the dimly lit side of the large walled room, and walked toward the main hall to play a few more games, before all the lights in the place are turned off for good.
“I’ve been coming here since 2000, so that’s about 18 years,” Bell said as she clutched her stack of printed numbers.
“It’s going to be sad to see it go,” she added. “At the beginning I wasn’t much of a bingo player or anything, but I guess it’s a bit of an addiction now.”
Bell lives nearby, about 14 blocks away, and drives to the bingo hall three or four days a week, for a few hours at a time.
The retiree, 75, says she’s more of a “casino person,” and bingo, for her, “just passes the time” when she’s not home with her animals.
“It’s OK, but I come here because I really don’t have anything else to do, not working and the kids are all grown up and gone,” Bell explained. “I’ve met some people – not friends, so much, but they’re bingo buddies. I’ll miss these guys, the staff, and I’ll see some of the bingo buddies out in Langley, I’m sure, but the staff, they become a family in a lot of ways, you know. Most of them are nice.”
Langley’s Cascades Casino, it seems, is where the bingo action will be — at least if Gateway gets its way. In January, the casino’s 420-seat Summit Theatre – a popular place for live music and dancing – was closed to make way for a new bingo hall. The move also meant the closure of the company’s Playtime Gaming bingo facility at 19664 64th Ave.
“The introduction of bingo to a full-service casino would be the first of its kind in the Lower Mainland,” Tanya Gabara, Gateway’s director of public relations, told the Now-Leader in an email on April 9.
“The opening date of the new Cascades Casino bingo venue is expected to be announced in the coming weeks,” she added.
In Ladner, Gateway is focused on building a fancy new casino and hotel on the Delta Town and Country Inn site, and the proposal is due for a public hearing on May 1. Last November, B.C. Lottery Corporation announced Delta would be the home of a new casino south of the Fraser River, as part of a relocation of the bingo hall in Newton.
The history of the Newton facility can be traced back to the early 1980s, when Pacificaires Marching Band operated a weekly charitable bingo in North Delta.
“In the mid 80’s a location in the Newton industrial area was secured and the organization utilized the site for bingo twice per week,” Gabara noted. “In the early 90’s the operation moved to its current location where it continued to offer charitable bingo events throughout the week for a variety of local charitable organizations and the local community.”
Seven years ago, the B.C. operations of Boardwalk Gaming, which operated the bingo site for a number of years, were purchased by Gateway.
Changes on the local bingo landscape have multiplied in recent years, and staff at Newton Community Gaming Centre have worked through them all. Many of the employees – women named Patty and Arlene and Joanne, among others – have collected a cheque there since the facility first opened in the early-1990s.
“We’d have 750 people on a good day here, back in the day,” Arlene McRobert, a shift manager, said with a smile. “Oh man, you could not get in here on a Saturday or Sunday if you weren’t in a seat by four o’clock. We had 10 floor runners, and now we have two.”
No computers were used back then, just paper cards. Today, a bingo player can dab a card with coloured ink while repeatedly touching an “easy dab” button on a screen in front of them.
Also in the day, balls bounced around a cage and tumbled down a chute for the caller to see. Today, the numbers are all computer-generated.
For a time, smoking was allowed in the main room of the hall, with non-smokers relegated to the south side of the facility, beyond a wall, but those days are done.
The business took another hit in 2014, when Surrey council moved to unplug the 150 slot machines that had made cash registers buzz for more than a year, as part of an agreement linked to a failed 2013 bid by Gateway to open a casino in South Surrey.
“Surrey decided to take them (slot machines) out, but they were sure popular,” McRobert noted.
“I don’t know when the smoking ban came in, but we dropped 30 per cent right then, approximately,” she added. “Now, if there’s a long game going on, they’re all outside smoking, the players, and then they’ll rush back in to get caught up.”
McRobert, who lives in South Surrey, plans to retire after her employment ends at the bingo hall, but some of the others aren’t sure what they’ll do for work. Gateway has promised to work closely with the employees “to try to transition them to suitable positions” at other properties owned by the company.
The regular players, meanwhile, may feel lost in the shuffle, once the hall’s “April Blowout” promo is over. “All pots must go!” screams a framed poster detailing the daily games – Super G Tuesdays, Exacto Wednesdays, Bullseye Fridays, Progressive Saturdays and so on.
“I can’t speak for all the people, but there are a lot of seniors who come here during the day, especially, and this is their social life, right,” McRobert said.
“People are upset, and they don’t know what they’re going to do,” she added. “They’re sad. They’ll have the bingo at Saint B’s (Saint Bernadette Parish at 6543 132nd St., Newton) on Tuesday nights, and the places in Vancouver. When the one at Cascades opens up, that’ll be the place most people will go, I suppose.”
Fleetwood resident Darlene Luniw, a regular in Newton for close to a decade, said she’ll get her bingo fix at Saint B’s now, “because I have no desire to go to the casino.”
Wearing a purple sequined hat, Luniw fondly recalled winning some big jackpots in Newton over the years.
“I won $36,000 one day, right here,” she beamed. “My chair went flying. They don’t have those jackpots anymore, and there was $18,000 another time.… I travelled, it was fun. I went to New Zealand, Australia, Tasmania, and two trips across Canada playing bingo. Good memories.”
Luniw said she enjoys bingo so much, she’ll often play the game on the computer at home after she leaves the Newton facility.
“Here, you have your crowd and celebrate birthdays and sometimes bring food and have a little parties. It’s a lot of the same faces. It’s been good,” Luniw said with a smile.
“I don’t know why it’s closing, really,” she added, her smile gone. “I guess they’re just not making enough money, and look at it today – not many people here, right. But if you go back, everything was charitable, and once the government took over and got their little fill, it’s ruined all the bingos. The no-smoking started it. A lot of people just wouldn’t come anymore, and the people who smoke now have to stand outside, even in the cold weather, all that.”
Looking ahead, Luniw has some travel plans in a not-so-cold country.
“I’ll just go to Mexico for an extra week on the money I’ll save from not playing bingo,” she said with raspy laugh.