01/23/2013 12:45 EST | Updated 03/25/2013 05:12 EDT

Manitoba online gambling, mini-casino, spark concerns about addiction and crime

WINNIPEG - Manitobans were given more opportunities to gamble Wednesday with the launch of an online wagering site and the promise of a small casino of sorts in a Winnipeg shopping centre.

The announcements led to accusations from Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard that more gambling, especially near downtown public-housing, will create more crime and poverty.

"This may actually be an attempt to get money from people who are very poor and to cause more social problems rather than to address the very real social problems that are there," Gerrard said.

The online site is a Manitoba branch of Playnow.com, which is operated by British Columbia's lottery agency.

The site offers virtual poker and roulette tables as well as the digital equivalent of video lottery terminals — screens of spinning images of fruit, hockey helmets and other items.

Manitoba Lotteries said the site is not aimed at encouraging more gambling, but rather at capturing a piece of the action already taking place on websites based elsewhere.

"There are about 2,000 unregulated sites that are available to Manitobans with no assurance of game integrity, responsible gaming features (and) personal information security," lotteries spokeswoman Susan Olynik said.

The downtown gambling centre — Olynik insists it is not a casino — is to open in the spring and feature 140 video lottery terminals as well as two poker and four blackjack tables.

The facility will be owned by True North Sports and Entertainment Limited, the owners of the National Hockey League Winnipeg Jets, but will be run by Manitoba Lotteries.

The deal seems to be a sweetened version of an arrangement that was struck in 2011 to help True North bring the Jets to Winnipeg.

The gambling centre is expected to pump millions of dollars a year into True North's pockets and help them maintain a NHL team in a small market. It will be located on the second floor of a shopping centre adjacent to the Jets' arena, steps away from a food court.

"I don't think that this is an appropriate place, right by that food court, with so many families coming through," Gerrard said.

Olynik said the facility will have all the checks and balances of the two existing casinos in Winnipeg — both of which are located far from downtown.

"We will have the same kind of processes and procedures and security in place that we do at our other facilities."

Steve Ashton, the NDP minister responsible for lotteries, said the downtown centre is not a big change in terms of potential gambling addiction.

"We have VLTs throughout the province in licensed premises. We have VLTs all throughout the downtown in licensed premises."