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Talks set to take place over future of casino at St Regis

Crunch talks next week regarding plans for a casino at the St Regis resort (File photograph)

Crunch talks are to be held next week about the future of the St Regis resort’s casino plans, The Royal Gazette understands.

Senior figures from the Marriott group, which operates the St Regis, are flying into the island for urgent discussions about the casino. It comes after the collapse of the bid to introduce casino gaming at the Hamilton Princess & Beach Club.

It is not yet clear if the Marriott people are meeting with the Government or members of the Bermuda Gaming Commission.

The move comes as a number of industry insiders have told The Royal Gazette that a key deterrent for US banks to become involved in creating a casino business is a perception that David Burt has “too close” a relationship with the Bermuda Gaming Commission, which regulates gambling.

Figures familiar with the situation have also claimed that the legislative regime imposed by the Government is too cumbersome and wide-ranging to attract investment to a small market like Bermuda.

Century Casinos announced last week that it had pulled out of planned casino at the Hamilton Princess & Beach Club, alluding to too much red tape being involved, pointing to the “current legislative framework”.

The hotel said it had also ceased searching for a new operator until the Bermuda Gaming Commission was able to provide a “viable path forward”.

Bermuda banks have also struggled to find a correspondent bank in the US which would be sought to handle gaming proceeds.

Shake-up gave minister power to sack commissioners

The Government pushed through controversial legislation in 2017 that tightened its grip on the then Bermuda Casino Gaming Commission.

Under the shake-up, the responsible minister was able to give policy direction to the commission.

And, after consultation, the minister had the right to fire commissioners.

At the time, David Burt said the new legislation was “very simple”. He added: “We will continue to prove we are up for the job and we are going to make sure we do it right.”

Alan Dunch quit as chairman of the organisation in protest at the changes.

In a parting shot, he said: “The notion that the commission will become obligated to follow general directions from you, as minister, is a potentially sad and seriously backward misstep in the ongoing efforts of Bermuda to introduce a gaming regime that will be recognised and perceived both locally and in the international gaming community as one that has integrity, independence and an unfettered ability to minimise, if not eliminate entirely, in fact and in appearance the possibility of corruption.

“The result may well be to impede Bermuda's ability to attract first-class people of the utmost integrity to both operate and regulate the gaming industry here.”

The commission was first led by executive director Richard Schuetz from 2015 to 2017.

Deborah Blakeney, who was the gaming commission’s general counsel, then became executive director in an acting capacity.

The Royal Gazette reported in February 2019 that she had left both roles.

Julie Grant, the organisation’s chief financial officer, became acting executive director.

By July that year, Curtis Dickinson, then the minister of finance, said that a potential new executive director for the organisation was identified.

The Gazette reported in January 2020 that a suitable candidate for the permanent post withdrew interest “before the completion of the recruitment process”.

Canadian Jean Major took over in November 2020, before standing down in December 2022.

Mr Major was replaced by current CEO Charmaine Smith.

A well-placed industry insider told The Royal Gazette: “This is not about politics, or personalities, it is about a power structure.

“The US banks are very reluctant to get involved in Bermuda when they see the head of Government has a close relationship with the gaming commission. The US correspondent banks are saying absolutely not to Bermuda at the moment.”

Another prominent business source said any suggestion the BGC was independent of government was “ludicrous”.

The source said: “[Bermuda Gaming] commissioners can be fired at will, they take direction from the Government. That’s a red light to US banks.”

A government spokeswoman said a solution to the banking issue had not materialised so far.

She said: “Irrespective of where ministerial responsibility under the gaming legislation may lie, the simple fact is that no solution to the banking issue has been forthcoming.

“Meetings between regulators and potential operators do not involve ministers.

“The Government’s responsibility is to ensure that legislation enables growth and economic recovery and in the case of gaming, the Government will consider what further amendments may need to be made to facilitate an amenity-style casino operation as proposed by local hotels.”

Alan Dunch quit as chairman of the then Bermuda Casino Gaming Commission in 2017 in protest at legislation that gave the Government powers to direct the body and fire commissioners. Currently, gaming comes under Jason Hayward, the Minister of Economy and Labour.

He said at the time that the moves could undermine the “independence and integrity” of the organisation and hamper the creation of casinos on the island.

The creation of a casino industry has been highlighted as one of its four key drivers of economic growth in the near future.

Nine years of talking, still no casino

Legislation passed in 2014 allowed for a maximum of four casinos on the island and created the Bermuda Casino Gaming Commission.

The Hamilton Princess & Beach Club received a provisional casino licence in 2017.

David Burt predicted in 2021 that the island’s first casino would be open by the end of that year.

The renamed Bermuda Gaming Commission’s remit was widened in 2021 to include betting shops, lotteries and cruise ship casinos.

The St Regis hotel resort was granted a formal casino licence in October 2022.

Century Casinos announced it was pulling out of the Hamilton Princess project earlier this month, citing the “current legislative framework”.

Gaming has come under the remit of several ministers down the years. Jamahl Simmons first held the brief as minister of economic development and tourism, followed by Curtis Dickinson, the former minister of finance, who took over responsibility in November 2018.

In 2020, David Burt took on gaming on as minister responsible for economic development in Bermuda, a portfolio now held by Jason Hayward.

Another key initiative is also in a state of flux with the push for vertical farming put on hold after the overseas company behind the scheme reported massive losses.

The Premier predicted that the island’s first casino would open by the end of 2021.

Charmaine Smith, BGC chief executive, has repeatedly refused to answer specific questions on the casino situation, stating that the regulator had “nothing further to add”.