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Sky City: a fall from giddy heights

By Kathryn Powley

Ready for punters.
Photo / Jason Dorday
Ready for punters. Photo / Jason Dorday

From the top of the Sky Tower to the depths of its cavernous carpark, SkyCity is a world of contradictions. When you're standing on the viewing deck,186mup, everything looks crisp and lovely.

But take the lift to six floors below ground, and it's impossible not to scan each car for pitifully crying children abandoned by parents feeding the pokie machines upstairs.

SkyCity is embroiled in a public relations nightmare as attacks come from all directions, and no end is in sight. The $350 million convention centre it wants to build for the Government in exchange for more pokies and a renewal of its licence has attracted so much heat that boss Nigel Morrison has gone to ground.

After giving a handful of interviews last week, he's now feeling so battered and bruised he flat out refuses to meet us. The $4 million manis heeding what is sometimes the best PR advice of all: shut up.

After days of umming and ahhing, the most he's willing to do is issue a lengthy written statement.

So...is SkyCity the Evil Empire? Or is it a good corporate citizen, providing visionary leadership for the Auckland CBD and giving back to the community?

What's the harm of a flutter on the pokies, dinner at a flash restaurant in the refurbished Federal St, or a ride to the top of the tower with the kids? And what's wrong with a thriving business wanting to grow through enticing international high-rollers or convention-goers?

For me, SkyCity might as well be in another country. I've been in four times: twice for family dinners to mark milestone birthdays, once for a trip up the Sky-Tower not long after it opened in 1997 -and then this week for a sneaky tour. Despite days of to-ing and fro-ing, no-one from SkyCity will give us a guided tour.

That is perhaps understandable after a relentless onslaught of adverse publicity in recent weeks-including this newspaper's expose of the casino's celebrity ambassador programme featuring broadcasters Mike Hosking and Paul Henry. But nothing has brought more flak on SkyCity in its 16 years of operation than the proposed national convention centre.

According to SkyCity the planned facility would be about 1.4ha - big enough to house a rugby field. It would hold 3500 delegates "banquet style" or 4500 "plenary style". It would create more than 1000 jobs while being built and 800 jobs once opened.

It says it has always been clear that the deal would need to include "an increase in gaming tables and machines and an extension to the casino licence in Auckland". However, nobody knows yet how many machines it will get-it is seeking up to 500.

Alex Swney, chief executive of innercity business lobby group Heart of the City, is firmly in favour of Auckland having an international convention centre, but is at pains to point out that that doesn't mean he is pro gambling.

All big thriving cities have convention centres and we really can't afford not to have one, he says. It will bring millions into the local economy and he believes we will need two more hotels just to cope with the extra visitors. The centre would also boost Auckland's economy in the slower winter off-season. "It's the old saying, 'there's no such thing as a free lunch'. I'm not making a case for more pokies, I'm making a case for a new convention centre." This SkyCity deal has also taken the shine off Prime Minister John Key's popularity.

The perception is that he and the casino have a too-cosy relationship. Indeed he has confirmed it was his suggestion to boost the number of gaming machines in exchange for a convention centre.

In response to a written Parliamentary question from Green MP Sue Kedgley on whether he had met Sky-City representatives to discuss proposed changes to the Gambling Act, Key admitted he attended a dinner with the SkyCity board in November 2009. They discussed a possible national convention centre and the Gambling Act.

Kedgley then asked whether there had been any further discussions with SkyCity, to which he replied that the November 2009 meeting was the only one he'd had with SkyCity or its representatives at which those topics were discussed.

The Herald on Sunday has discovered that in October 2010, Morrison and Key attended an exclusive dinner for the New Zealand Business and Parliament Trust, where they posed together in a group photo. Key said last year: "I am invited to many events attended by a large number of people so it is possible I may have seen representatives of SkyCity at other times, although I have no recollection of specific discussions."

This week the NZ Herald reported SkyCity chairman Rod McGeoch boasting of the casino's close relationships with government ministers - and the links go even further. This newspaper revealed in 2010 that Key's chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson, spent a week enjoying a "shootin', smokin' and boozin'" private holiday in LasVegas in the company of friends and lobbyists Roger Sowry and Mark Unsworth, who represent SkyCity.

Unsworth says that trip had nothing to do with SkyCity. The idea that they had discussed gaming policy on the trip was "bizarre and wacko", and he'd done no work on the convention centre deal in the past 18 months.

"Hand on heart, I've never seen a piece of paper on the convention centre," Unsworth said. Key's government and SkyCity management may well have acted with complete propriety and transparency, as they insist, but the relationship's opaque appearance has not inspired public confidence.

But that's the history. Let's step inside through the big glass doors and judge SkyCity for ourselves. It is flash and flashy, polished and futuristic. With the tower looming above, the main foyer reminds me of the inter-planetary departure gate in a 70s sci-fi flick.

I take the lift to the top of the Sky Tower, where the doors open to a breathtaking view stretching from the outer reaches of the Hauraki Gulf to the Manukau Harbour.

My Lonely Planet advises: "The Tower is the best part of the SkyCity complex, a tacky 24-hour casino with restaurants, cafes, bars and a hotel." Today, the observation deck is buzzing with excited children and tired looking mothers at the tail-end of the school holidays.

On a bench seat in a quiet spot looking over Rangitoto and the North Shore, snuggled up to one another are young couple Sam and Frances, both 18. She wanted to do something special as he's been overseas, and she wants to overcome her fear of heights. As it turns out, the SkyTower is a romantic place too. Back in the lift a little girl tells her mother how scared she was. "You paid $40 for me to feel sick," she says cheerfully.

"Well, we'll know not to bring you next time," her mum retorts. (For the record, tickets cost $61 for two adults and two children to ride to the top.)

Exploring the complex is thirsty work, but it is surprisingly hard to find a bar open on a weekday afternoon. A friendly security guard in a smart blue blazer shows me where we need to go.

"What about in there?" I ask, indicating a door through which a beautifully made-up young Asian woman in a skin-tight, impossibly short minidress and high heels is heading. "That's a VIP area," he says, smiling apologetically."Members only." It's the Diamond Lounge, which is the subject of a complaint over its smoking area. Gamblers, or "gamers" in SkyCity speak, can puff away and play pokies to their hearts' content in an area with louvres.

Problem Gambling Foundation boss Graeme Ramsey is unimpressed with SkyCity and can rattle off facts and figures until the cows come home. It all boils down to how they could be doing better at stopping problem gamblers, he says. For instance, gamblers could be made to commit, before they even sit down at a pokie machine, to the length of time they are going to play and how much they're prepared to lose.

He scoffs at the notion that the pamphlets about problem gambling that are clearly visible in the casino might make a difference to anybody with a problem. "Our mission is to eliminate the harm from problem gambling. Any new machines will be increasing the work that we do, not decreasing it." Ramsey, a former mayor of Kaipara, has been in the job three yearsandsays the pastweek has been one of the busiest he has had fielding media chasing the convention centre story. He says the convention centre is far from"free".

"It comes at a cost that will be borne by people who gamble at SkyCity, therefore problem gamblers, and we will pick up the costs in our community." But according to SkyCity:"There has been a lot of misinformation regarding this in an attempt to sensationalise and polarise this issue. The anti-gambling lobby groups have been out in force, and the media channels have given them a good hearing."

They point out the age limit for playing a gaming machine in a casino is 20, but it's 18 in a pub or club. "With more than 200 fulltime security officers all trained in First Aid and with our constant video surveillance, SkyCity provides a safe and secure environment for our customers to enjoy themselves."

Following the security guard's advice on where to get a drink, I ride the escalator down to the main gaming floor. It is vast, and the outside world has disappeared so that we're in a bubble of flashing lights and what sounds like a 1980s rock station. Compared with the rest of the place, the floor is teeming with people-perhaps 200 are clustered around tables playing blackjack, roulette and Caribbean stud poker and other games.

On the perimeter are hundreds and hundreds of gaming machines - the dreaded pokies we've been told so much about.

A friend who visited Las Vegas last month says it feels "jammed in". In Vegas as soon as you sit down somebody offers you a free drink. Not so here - I only see one waitress the whole time. And if we were in Vegas, the place would be full of smoke. Looking up, so many security cameras pepper the black ceiling they could be supporting the whole structure.

But nobody looks up. Everybody is intent on their task. At the pokies, eyes are fixed on the flashing machines, fingers mechanically pushing buttons. A trio of friendly octogenarians- two men and awoman-catch my eye.

"How does it work?" I ask. "We don't know," laughs one of the men. They've popped in to see what all the fuss is about. It's all right to have a go, he says, but you wouldn't want to get addicted - it would soak up all your money.

The other chap thinks he understands how it works, but when their money is gone, they have won next to nothing.

The only jackpot I see struck is for $15. Ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching, goes the machine. But nobody seems terribly impressed, least of all the winner, a young Asian man. There's no telling how much he's "invested" for this return.

Figures on how much Kiwis sink into the casino are hard to get, but last year SkyCity's revenue was $880 million.

Some of that revenue is spread around. Since 1996 its charity, the SkyCity Community Trust, has given away $26 million to 1300 recipients, including $58,000 last October to South Auckland Health Foundation to make 50 cold houses warm.

The foundation's executive director Pam Tregonning said: "The effects of having a warm and dry home make an immediate and significant difference to the health and wellbeing of our most vulnerable children and families."

The Leukaemia and Blood Foundation also benefits. Spokeswoman Georgie Hackett said SkyCity was "invaluable" to the organisation which received no government funding.

This year it would benefit from the proceeds of four major fundraising events - the Firefighter Sky Tower Stair Challenge ($185,000 last year); the inaugural Step Up Corporate SkyTower Stair Challenge; a celebrity chef dinner and auction (which was last held in 2010, raising $207,000); and shave for acure ($14,315 last year).

"SkyCity's support allows us to continue to fund our core services, patient support programmes, research, information, awareness, and advocacy," shesaid.

Among the families to benefit are the Hounsells of Auckland. Auckland doctor Emma was diagnosed with leukaemia three years ago, and told the Herald how she had to explain her hospital visits to 5-year-old daughter Rebecca. "She asked: 'Are you dying, Mummy?' I was quite upset, I didn't want a little girl to be having thoughts like that."

She welcomed the support she received from the Leukaemia Foundation and hoped others would donate. But for all the casino does to support families like the Hounsells, it is the effect on the families of gamblers that provides the most gruelling tales.

Last stop is the carpark, notorious for its exorbitant prices: $15 for the first hour at night then $5.50 for each extra hour up to $40 without a validation.

The carpark is also famous as the place where a woman allegedly abandoned her five children, aged 5 months to 8 years, so she and her boyfriend could head upstairs and play the pokies.

The two, who have name suppression, are before the courts. The three eldest children were fathered by another man and this week he spoke for the first time about discovering his children had been found screaming, banging and clearly distressed in a hot van, 45 minutes after being left there.

SkyCity says it has a "zero tolerance" for children unaccompanied on its premises and contact police immediately. With hourly security patrols of the carpark and large numbers of surveillance cameras, SkyCity believes it is the most tightly monitored carpark in the country.

But the father was distraught. "I thought what kind of mother and partner can't look after kids and leave them in a van? There could have been a fire, or kidnapping. Things can happen like that. I was really sad about it. "I just cried. After that I just wanted to see my kids, they were in foster care. My son just ran to me and started crying."

A devout Muslim, the man says gambling and drinking are forbidden by his faith. But after their split, his ex-wife went on to the domestic purposes benefit and started gambling.

The children are now well, he says, and should be back in his care this weekend after being looked after by foster parents since the end of February. But, he says, "SkyCity is no good for families."

Stepping out into the fresh air and the daylight, it feels good to rejoin the real world. The SkyTower was impressive, the $7 beer went down well-but who knows when I'll be back.

- Herald on Sunday

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