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And the winner of Sydney's lockout laws is ... Star casino!

Date

Michael Koziol

Comings and goings at the Star Casino.

Comings and goings at the Star Casino. Photo: Cole Bennetts

As the clock ticks by on a damp, wintry Saturday night, a trickle of revellers crossing Pyrmont Bridge turns into a steady flow. Faced with a strict 1.30am lockout in Sydney's CBD, those who don't want to go home are heading to the Star casino – where different licensing laws mean the party kicks on all night.

Casino employees, police, party-goers and taxi drivers say the Star has been a major beneficiary of the NSW government's liquor reforms. The laws, in effect since February, prohibit patrons entering pubs and clubs in Kings Cross and the CBD after 1.30am and stop bars serving drinks after 3am. The lockout zone ends at Darling Harbour, which makes the Star exempt.

"We couldn't get in anywhere else so this is our last place to come and go," said 18-year-old Melissa Abarca. She and three friends, all from Wollongong, aren't here to gamble, though they concede they're likely to have a flutter.

Wollongong party-goers Olivia Jurd, Melissa Abarca, Taylor Erskine and Courtney Quinn at the Star Casino - their only option because of the lockout laws.

Wollongong party-goers Olivia Jurd, Melissa Abarca, Taylor Erskine and Courtney Quinn at the Star Casino - their only option because of the lockout laws. Photo: Cole Bennetts

None of the group has been to the Star before and they are visibly relieved when informed it contains a nightclub where they can dance.

"We would have liked to get in to an actual club but we're here now."

Police Association of NSW president Scott Weber says more and more patrons are migrating to areas outside the lockout zone such as Newtown and Pyrmont, attracted by 24-hour venues including the Pyrmont Bridge Hotel and the Star.

"Having an epicentre for alcohol can lead to massive issues with alcohol-related violence," he says. "It's a recipe for disaster."

On a wet weekend when the Herald visits the city is largely deserted and nearby Darling Harbour is dead. But inside the Star, it's a very different story.

Shortly after midnight, two queues snake away from the entrance to Marquee, the casino's nightclub. The gaming floor is packed and the venue's other bars are doing a roaring trade. Young men and women pour out of taxis and eagerly climb the escalators into the mecca above.

Casino employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the venue was definitely busier later in the night since the lockout was introduced.

"You'd see more people coming in later than you used to," said one employee, who has worked in various parts of the business for two years. Bars inside the casino that previously closed before 2am are now staying open much later, he said.

"As opposed to people coming in around 10pm, 11pm you see a lot of people coming in [at] 1am, 2am. And people still coming in [at] 3am, 4am even as we're trying to close the bar."

Management had warned staff to expect a bump in trade and to ensure responsible service of alcohol provisions were strictly adhered to, employees said. But bars and restaurants were still regarded as "window dressing", one said. "Gambling is where it is – we're there to bring people in".

The casino denies it has benefited from the lockouts and says attendance is much the same since the lockout came into effect on February 24.

"The Star has not seen an increase in patronage since the lockouts were introduced by the NSW government," a spokesperson said. "In fact, the Star's head count on Friday and Saturday nights has fallen slightly."

The casino would not provide patronage figures or confirm whether the head count included periods on a Saturday and Sunday morning.

At the same time, the Star's business has surged. In an announcement of its full-year results, owner Echo Entertainment boasted about "significant acceleration of revenue growth in the second half of the financial year".

"Particularly pleasing was the performance of the Star," where domestic gross gaming revenue rose 4.2 per cent, and total underlying revenue rose 6.8 per cent, for the year.

"All of the growth" at the Star occurred in the second half of the financial year, the report said. From January to June, the Star's underlying revenue was $715 million – up $109 million, or 15 per cent, on the same period last year.

The company puts the Star's success down to marketing efforts, its customer loyalty program and new facilities from its billion-dollar renovation "gaining traction". It also notes the venue's operating expenses increased more than $500 million due to "increased activity across the business".

Former premier Barry O'Farrell intended the policy to help curb alcohol-fuelled violence after two deaths following "one-punch hits" shocked the city. Official crime statistics due for release next week will be the first proper opportunity to measure the lockout's success.

Police would not respond directly to questions about the impact of the laws in the Pyrmont area. But independent Sydney MP Alex Greenwich, who conducted a community forum last week, said locals reported an increase in anti-social behaviour and people wandering the streets, particularly in the early hours.

Mr Greenwich said the lockout "creates a honeypot effect for the Star casino" and called for the zone to be expanded, but with exemptions for other venues that have a good safety record.

The lockout has also changed life for taxi drivers. Issa Sarkis says that come 1.30am, punters are either heading home early or going to the Star.

"It's the only place we're picking up really from," he says. On this night he had five jobs from the city to the Star between 1am and 2.30am, but there was little other work going. "So it makes it worse for us."

Back on the streets of Pyrmont, Tess James is being dragged along to the casino with a birthday party contingent. She finds herself ending up there more frequently these days, even though it's far from her favourite destination.

"It's either go to the Star or end up on the street," she says.

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