Byron Bay’s Beach Hotel is set to become the first licensed venue in the shire to get rid of its pokies in a bid to reduce problem gambling.
In a move that anti-gambling advocates hope will inspire other local venues, the incoming owners of the hotel have pledged to start shutting down its 15 machines from the moment they officially take over on February 26.
It comes as new figures show that people in the shire pour about $138 million into the pokies each year, losing about 10 cents from every dollar they drop into the slot.
Daniel Madhavan, the CEO of the Impact Investment Group (IIG), which is leading the syndicate of new owners, said it was clear poker machines were bad for individuals and bad for the community.
‘They’re designed to be addictive, and that’s exactly what they are,’ Mr Madhavan said.
‘We simply don’t see how poker machines in local communities can be reconciled with what we consider responsible.
‘So with the Van Haandel family, who run the Beach Hotel, sharing our vision, we can do our bit by closing the door to the gaming room once and for all.’
With 429 poker machines across 20 clubs and pubs, the Byron shire is not as pokie-drenched as some local government areas in NSW.
However, figures from the Independent Liquor & Gaming Authority (ILGA) show that those who gamble on pokies in the shire still lost $12.8m last financial year on the one-armed bandits.
That equates to $34,794 per day.
Our per capita losses of $388 per person per year puts us roughly on par with the other shires in the northern rivers, except for Tweed, which is way higher thanks to its mega-clubs.
In neighbouring Ballina shire, for example, gamblers lost $28,144,860 ($541,247 a week) on pokies over the past year.
The manager of the Northern Rivers Gambling Counselling Service, Emma Ryan, said that the majority of problem gamblers who came to the service were poker-machine users, and a significant proportion came from the Byron shire.
‘We see people from Byron, from Brunswick Heads, it’s across the board – any age, socioeconomic background and pretty much equal numbers of men and women,’ Ms Ryan said.
She said poker machines were addictive because they offered an escape.
‘It gives people a way of zoning out of life by putting them in an altered state.’
‘It’s not about winning big, it’s about buying more time to be in that bubble,’ Ms Ryan said.
Greens MP and Gambling Harm spokesperson Justin Field added that NSW ‘continues to race ahead of all other states in Australia when it comes to community losses on poker machines and the extent of harm caused to people and communities’.
‘Poker machines are designed for addiction and to strip billions a year from the NSW community. This is money taken out of people’s pockets and away from the benefit of families, communities and local businesses,’ he said.
‘The cost of poker machines is not only financial, these addictive machines ruin the lives of individuals and families
‘The NSW Liberal/Nationals must act urgently to protect people and communities from gambling harm rather than protecting the vested interests of the industry.
‘The Government must remove dangerous features of poker machines, introduce $1 maximum bets and cap the losses that the community faces from these addictive machines,’ Mr Field said.
The main players
Byron’s licensed clubs are, not surprisingly, the biggest pokie purveyors in the shire.
Mullumbimby’s Ex-Services Club tops the list with 74 machines, followed by the Byron Bay Services Club (60 machines).
Clubs NSW has consistently stated that without poker machine revenue, its members would have to cease providing services to the community such as sponsoring local sporting teams and offering reasonably priced meals and entertainment.
However, Stephen Mayne, a spokesman from the Alliance for Gambling Reform, said clubs often grossly overstated their community contributions.
‘The reality is that most of the revenue from poker machines gets spent on a club’s own operations,’ Mr Mayne said. ‘Most clubs throw a few crumbs to the community to justify the massive harm they cause through poker machines.’
Impact Investment Group says getting rid of the Beach Hotel’s poker machines is part of a broader plan to transform the hotel into a more ‘socially conscious space’.
The Echo understands it is planning to spend $800,000 to turn the existing poker machine area into a small bar with a ‘local’ theme that will feature local produce, drinks, art and music.
A further $1m will reportedly be spent on renovations including environmental improvements designed to cut the pub’s carbon footprint by 39 per cent.
There is also a plan to reduce the venue’s water use and general waste.
‘We did an audit, again working closely with the Van Haandels, and there are big opportunities to bring down LPG use, and to bring down grid electricity consumption,’ Mr Madhavan said.
‘There’s a lot of roof space for solar panels, and if necessary, we could top it up with high-quality local offsets.’
Since agreeing on a sale price of $70m with the current owner, businessman Max Trigg, last September, Impact Investment Group has been actively seeking investors to join the syndicate of owners.
The Echo understands that they have had considerable interest from both local and international investors and that final settlement of the property will take place as planned on February 26.