By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
A YEAR after the Christie administration issued a provisional licence to eight web shop companies, one pioneer of the gaming industry said there is much to be concerned about, especially the “proliferation” of numbers houses.
This is a common complaint from some Bahamians who feel that too many gaming houses have emerged within the last year.
As the head of FML Group of Companies, Craig Flowers yesterday offered his perspective on the issue, questioning when the government will do more to regulate the problem. He added that the regulations the government has placed on the sector meant his company has barely got by.
His statements to The Tribune came a day after Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe confirmed that the Gaming Board is finally ready to issue official licences to the eligible web shops, although one company, Asue Draw & Spin, failed to renew its provisional licence and appears to have exited the industry amid rumours of unpaid taxes and fees.
With respect to Mr Flowers’ criticism, Mr Wilchcombe yesterday said steps would be taken to further clamp down on the proliferation of web shops.
For Mr Flowers, the government has not been as responsive on this issue as he expected or would like.
“There is still a lot of loose ends in the industry that I think the government needs to address,” he said, “particularly whether the government is going to find out whether there will be a moratorium on stores opening up in the country and how many are allowed on the island. Will it be an open door policy that you could put as many stores as you want as it has been in the past?
“There’s a proliferation of stores all over the country and there is no indication that the government will ever put a stop on it. Of course, the more stores we open, the more money we have to pay. The intent of web shops is to raise funds so perhaps that’s why we’ve heard nothing. There’s nothing in place to stop you from building more web shops.”
Mr Flowers said since provisional licences were awarded to eight companies last year, the number of web shops in the country has “quadrupled,” a statement that appears to contradict Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe’s statements on the matter.
Mr Flowers said he has avoided expanding his company to include additional houses out of fear that the new locations could violate impending zoning regulations and could therefore be shut down in the future.
This, however, has complicated the company’s business plan.
“We were taking the position that says we are waiting for government to determine how many stores one company can be allowed to operate,” he said.
Though synonymous with gaming in the Bahamas, Mr Flowers said it has been extremely challenging for his company to remain viable while adhering to the various regulations the government has imposed on the sector.
“From FML’s perspective it has been a tremendous challenge,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised that all the applicants do not meet the requirements. That will indicate the extent of the challenges that was imposed on the operators. We were challenged because we were caught in a position where we had to reproduce an entirely new platform. That created a setback and we barely got by. We wanted to roll out a platform that complied with all the requirements the government put in place. The cost has been astronomical.”
When contacted to respond to Mr Flowers’ concerns of web shop proliferation, Mr Wilchcombe said he shared them as well.
“I share the concern of Mr Flowers but I’m satisfied that we have made tremendous progress in reducing the number of houses from 600 to around 400,” Mr Wilchcombe said. “I expect that number to be further reduced as the Gaming Board introduces new measures related to zoning. Since the commencement of the regularisation effort, the staff of the Gaming Board’s Regulatory Compliance Department has performed hundreds of site inspections in an effort to determine the proximity of gaming houses to educational institutions, places of religious worship, residential areas, and other among houses.
“The zoning proposal advanced by the board envisions a transitional approach that takes into consideration the unique constraints associated with imposing a comprehensive zoning scheme upon many long standing game houses locations in an environment that has not been properly zoned.”
As reported by The Tribune yesterday, Mr Wilchcombe said the government will place a moratorium on web shops - presumably halting construction of new ones during this period - although he said details about this have to be determined.