By Steve Hubrecht

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The B.C. Gaming Policy Enforcement Branch (GPEB) is reverting back its pre-COVID-19 pandemic rules and will not renew or extend a temporary gaming license that had let a group of Kootenay Rotary Clubs (including Invermere) run their wildly-popular online bingo program.

The branch had first changed its rules to effectively allow local nonprofits to run online bingo, back in 2020, when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions prompted many people to stay at home.

The Rotary Club of Golden jumped onboard right away, starting a Friday night online bingo, and very quickly opened their event up to other Rotary Clubs across the Kootenay region, including Invermere.

“It blossomed,” Rotary Club of Invermere president, Yvonne Redeker, told the Pioneer. “The clubs (13 in total), have grown it into a huge thing, and it continues to be a big deal.”

The revenue generated each Friday by the bingo is divided up amongst the Kootenay Rotary Clubs. So, for instance, if Invermere and Columbia Valley residents buy 15 per cent of the bingo cards on a given Friday night, then 15 per cent of funds raised would go to the Rotary Club of Invermere. Each club then distributes the money, with 50 per cent going to the local winner (or winners) and 50 per cent kept by the club to donate to various local charitable causes.

Redeker pointed out that in some respects this means all the money goes back into the Columbia Valley community — with local winners often spending their prize money here in the valley, and obviously with the Rotary Club of Invermere donating the rest to Columbia Valley nonprofits.

From spring of 2020 until the present the Rotary Club of Invermere had donated a cumulative total of more than $73,000 (generated by the online bingo) to 25 valley-based nonprofit entities and initiatives, including Angel Flight East Kootenay, the Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy (CBAL)’s Book Under Every Tree program, CBAL’s Seniors Pen Pal program, the Columbia Outdoor School (which operates the Blue Lake camp), Columbia Valley Search and Rescue, the Columbia Valley Rockies Booster Society, Columbia Valley Arts (CV Arts), the Columbia Village Garden, multiple scholarships for David Thompson Secondary School (DTSS) students, the Groundswell Network Society, the Invermere Fire Department, the Windermere Valley Museum, the local Senior’s Centre, the Windermere Valley Ski Club, several Summit Trail Makers Society initiatives, several Summit Youth Centre Hub programs, the Valley Fitness Centre, Wildsight, Windermere Elementary School’s outdoor learning program, and the Wings Over the Rockies school program.

Many of these groups and initiatives had seen their normal fundraising efforts significantly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, noted Redeker. 

She pointed out that collectively, the Kootenay Rotary online bingo had generated nearly $4 million.

“It’s mind boggling how much this has brought into our communities,” she said. “It’s disheartening that it won’t be able to continue. I don’t know why they (the provincial gaming branch) don’t approve it as normal, non-temporary license. It’s bizarre. It’s been of true benefit at a time that has been quite difficult for a lot of people.”

Redeker also pointed out that a great many online bingo players have flocked to online bingo precisely because it so accessible and can be played from the comfort of home.

“There’s no need to brave icy roads to go 20 minutes, or an hour, down the road,” she explained. “I really don’t feel that we are taking business away from in-person bingo halls. Instead we’ve created a whole new demographic, that stretches from the elderly to young people, and provided a new form of community-oriented entertainment for them that also happens to be doing a lot of good for local groups.”