By Megan Doherty, Canberra Times 16/09/2015

The new owner of the Canberra Casino plans to spend $330 million building a new casino and creating a resort-style entertainment, dining and retail precinct for the city, but it will largely hinge on poker machines being allowed into the facility.

Hong Kong-based Aquis Entertainment predicts its investment could attract almost an extra 750,000 visitors to Canberra a year, including high-end Chinese gamblers.

The company believes the project can deliver up to 420 ongoing jobs in the casino and entertainment precinct and 200 jobs in construction while generating more than $60 million a year in taxes for the government’s coffers.

Two hotels will be built on the site – one six-star, 12-storey tower targeting high-rollers, luxury tourists and even visiting heads of state and other dignitaries. The other is a 100-suite, five-star hotel extending to 15 stories.

The proposal has been put through the unsolicited bids framework which sees a panel of ACT officials assess it and the government consider whether it will support it or not before it has to go through the planning approvals process, including a development application and public consultation.

The project also includes new bars, cafes and restaurants and promenade-style shopping possibly featuring luxury brands such as Chanel, Gucci and Louis Vuitton, a first for Canberra. The lobby of the new casino would look out toward Glebe Park with the developer seeking to build a newroad in from Coranderrk Street, creating a large forecourt and watercourse area at the front and linking into a wetlands at Glebe Park, which it would also finance. Cox Architects’ design has included a pitched green roof as part of the casino, with people able to walk over the grassed roof.

Aquis has yet to secure approval or financing for the project but wants to start construction next year. It was expected to be a two-year build, with a likely opening date in 2018. The two-stage project will see the existing 21-year-old casino remain open and operating while the new one is built.

The proposal promises ‘‘true international VIP gaming’’ despite Casino Canberra being the only casino in Australia not licensed to operate with poker machines. Aquies managing director Justin Fung said the company was pursuing the inclusion of poker machines in the new casino so it could compete with casinos around the country and internationally.

‘‘It would be very difficult for us to build or to market a property that only offered a fraction of the offerings of our competitors. It wouldn’t be fair to the Canberra market and it would be a pretty difficult situation for us as well,’’ he said.

‘‘Its a process. We’ve submitted our unsolicited bid. We’re looking to start that dialogue to determine what exactly we can or cannot build or can or cannot incorporate into the property.’’

Mr Fung said “you can’t have a supermarket that doesn’t sell eggs or milk’’ and if poker machines were not allowed, the project would ‘‘have to be seriously revisited’’. ‘‘With a project like this you cannot finance it until you know what you’re going to build. ‘‘Until we have that discussion with government and we know what we’re allocated, what we’re allowed to build, what we’re allowed to incorporate, we cannot go out and start looking for finances for the project .  ‘‘We put the entire financial model together making certain assumptions and those assumptions include several aspects including the poker machines, so if one component gets taken out, we do have to revisit the entire model.’’

The development also includes a 3300 square metre extension to the neighbouring National Convention Centre, to be funded entirely by Aquis and seen as a interim measure until a new convention and exhibition centre is funded and built as part of the ACT government’s City to the Lake project.

Mr Fung said he hoped to get a celebrity chef presence in the restaurants as well as high-end shopping labels. ‘‘It’s not just an integrated resort. It’s an entertainment and lifestyle precinct, something that people will associate with the food, the shopping, somewhere you can spend your afternoons. ‘The gaming component is just one component, it doesn’t incorporate the whole experience.  It really would be an extension of City Walk and the rejuvenation of that part of the city.’’

It’s understood Aquis would have to purchase existing poker machines from another outlet in the ACT as new ones are not permitted. Chief Minister Andrew Barr, who has previously said poker machines would not be allowed in the casino, said he could not comment on the proposal until he received a detailed briefing from his officials but welcomed the show of confidence in the ACT economy.

‘‘This proposal demonstrates investor confidence in Canberra’s economy, Canberra’s attractiveness as an investment destination, and our city’s enormous potential for growth and development,’’ Mr Barr said.

Hong Kong businessman Tony Fung, Justin’s father, bought the casino in 2014 for $6 million. The company has told the Australian stock exchange that Casino Canberra in August had a gross gaming revenue of $1.984 million, up 5.8 per cent on the previous month and up a massive 53.8 per cent for the same month in 2014.