Board goes blank at bingo hall
Last bingo hall in St. Albert closes its doors due to mall redevelopment
Tuesday, Apr 01, 2014 04:45 pm
Like other regular players, Esther O’Neill went to bingo early on Monday afternoon.
She claimed her preferred seat at the front, near the caller. Then she set out her colourful daubers, which she uses to mark the paper sheets. Around three o’clock she headed to grab lunch, gossip with friends and call her husband.
This has been O’Neill’s routine twice a week for many years, but that routine played out for the last time this week as the hall shut down on Tuesday.
“There is a lot, a lot of tears. It’s really sad,” she said. “There is no place for the seniors in St. Albert to go now.”
The bingo hall is closing because its home at Grandin Park Plaza is slated for redevelopment. In early March, mall owner Amacon sent a letter to its tenants stating they will have to move out by April 30. The company plans to demolish the mall to build a mix of residential and commercial buildings on the property.
The subsequent closure of the city’s only bingo hall, run by the Campbell Park Bingo Association, brought with it great feelings of loss, said general manager Lesley Gierulski. Affected are 41 local organizations and hundreds of seniors.
A loss for charities
The hall makes between $700,000 to $900,000 in profits a year for local charities, Gierulski said.
These include numerous local sports and youth organizations, the Lions Club and the Kinsmen, and many smaller organizations, such as the local branch of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
The organizations volunteer their time to running the bingo hall, earning a split of the proceeds, which they use to finance their programs.
These include everything from free school lunches for children, to financing hockey gear and camps, and organizing the Kinsmen Christmas programs, she said.
“You look at all the programs that are very busy at the 50+ Club and the legion. This is how they pay their expenses,” she said. “And there are not a lot of opportunities, especially for the seniors’ groups, to raise a lot of money.”
With the closure of the hall, organizations such as the St. Albert Rugby and Football Club will lose about $6,000 a year – a third of their regular proceeds – said secretary treasurer Douglas Krempien.
Until now, that money was used to sponsor junior and high school games and supplies. Losing bingo will hurt the club, he said.
“Working bingo is an easy fundraiser to do six times a year,” he said. “Working dinners and silent auctions will take up much more time.”
It’s a great loss for the community, agreed Christine Poirier with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
St. Albert bingo funds almost $45,000 in local programs for the blind, including the white cane program that teaches her clients orientation skills, Poirier said. Those are programs the government or donors don’t necessarily support, she said.
A place for seniors
But it’s not only local groups that suffer from the closure of the bingo hall.
Esther O’Neill and her friend Sheila Tet have played bingo in the mall for many years. It’s an outlet for local seniors to meet and relax, and make friends, they said.
“Instead of sitting and watching four walls or the television, this is like a family,” O’Neill said. “They come, they are relaxed, they enjoy themselves and then they get a cab or somebody comes and picks them up and then they go back to their place.”
She doubted that many of the seniors will go to other bingo halls in Edmonton. Not everyone can afford the cost for a taxi, she said.
And many of the players are well into their 90s now, added Tet. They all know each other so well that if someone is missing, they phone and ask if the person is doing OK, she said.
Searching for a new home
It wasn’t for a lack of trying that the bingo hall couldn’t stay open, said Gierulski. The bingo association had found other spaces in the city, even less expensive ones, but it didn’t consider the cost of renovations that would come with opening another bingo hall, she said.
Those quickly added up to $400,000 or $500,000, just to build the bathrooms, offices, the stage and to put in the wiring.
“And that was totally out of the budget for the charities here in St. Albert,” she said.
The Campbell Park Bingo Association has leased space in the mall since 2006. But bingo has been part of the city landscape since 1981.
Previously, St. Albert had three organizations but one closed when the smoking bylaw was introduced in St. Albert in 2005. The other two, formerly located in Campbell Business Park, joined forces in 2005.
Gierulski said she managed bingo at the mall for nine years but worked in local bingo halls for more than 30 years. Much like her customers, she doesn’t know what to do next.
“I have no idea what I’m going to do,” she said. “We are trying to find some kind of solution. If we can’t find money to go into a new place then hopefully we’ll be able to place some, if not all, of the groups into Edmonton.”
At this time, the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission, which holds authority over provincial bingo halls, does not allow for local organizations to organize bingo outside their city boundaries. A spokesperson with the commission said the agency is now exploring other solutions to help the groups in St. Albert.
Another option is to get the city to help out with the renovations, said resident Andrea Genereux.
She recently started a petition to ask Mayor Nolan Crouse and city council to rescue the bingo hall. On Monday morning, she had already collected 700 signatures from bingo players and volunteers.
Now she intends to ask people around the city to sign her petition, so money keeps getting to the charities and programs won’t get cut, she said.
“We have a lot of wealthy people in St. Albert. They can write a cheque for their kids to play hockey. But then the kids that don’t have that luxury, they will be out in the cold,” she said. “What will they do? They are not going to have anything positive to look forward to.”