Will the city really profit from casinos? NEW ORLEANS' BIG GAMBLE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The billboard on Canal Street advertising the coming of the world's largest casino says it all: "Harrah's Casino New Orleans," it reads. "Let the Fun Begin."

To the 9 million people who visit here each year -- they drop some $2.6 billion in the local economy -- and to the 1 million people who live in New Orleans and the surrounding parishes, the Crescent City was already plenty of fun.

This is the Big Easy, cher. It's Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, the French Quarter. It's the Mississippi Riverboat tour -- you can steam up to the zoo and catch the albino 'gators, baby. It's St. Charles Avenue -- yes, there's still a streetcar named Desire. It's coffee and beignets at the Cafe Du Monde, it's dinner at Antoine's, it's jambalaya and gumbo, Dixie beer, music at Tipitina's and Cajun dancing Thursday nights at the Maple Leaf.

This town needed gambling?

Heck, you could always make a sports bet in New Orleans, anyway. And you could get invited to sit in on a decent-stakes poker game, too, provided you had a friendly face and hung around town long enough to make a friend, say a day or two. For those who like their action legal, well, there's already a racetrack, and there's an off-track betting parlor on Bourbon Street.

So, no, New Orleans didn't need gambling. But like most municipalities and state governments these days, it sure needed money. In the '90s, legalizing various forms of gambling is the slickest way for politicians and bureaucrats to raise revenues. They get tax dollars without having to call it a tax.

And now, the dice are rolling in New Orleans along with the bon temps.

As is often the case, the taboo was broken first by riverboat gambling, which, by the way, casino operators are lobbying for in Maryland. (However, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has pledged to veto any bills this year that would legalize such casinos.) Currently, there are 10 such riverboat casinos operating in Louisiana. One of them, the Flamingo, is moored in the tourist district of the city.

Under Louisiana law, 18.5 percent of the gross profits taken in by these casinos goes to the state, and records kept by the state police show that the riverboats are taking in about $80 million a month. When the five remaining boats that have been licensed are in operation, Louisiana is looking at something like $200 million a year in revenues from gaming.

"Obviously, it's not an insignificant amount of money," says Larry Pearson, who publishes a newsletter about the riverboats. In Louisiana, which exempts most of its homeowners from paying property taxes, it's an especially important source of revenue.

In addition, local governments get $2.50 for every person who sets foot in one of the casinos. The Flamingo's riverboat was host to some 213,000 passengers last month.

And these pots of money all figure to get much bigger. On April 16, Harrah's will open a temporary land-based gambling casino in the old Municipal Building near Louis Armstrong Park. A year later, Harrah's will open what is being billed as the largest gaming facility in the world. It will have 6,000 slot machines and more than 200 blackjack, craps and roulette tables in a state-of-the-art 200,000-square-foot building. This Goliath will be located at the edge of the French Quarter in the old exhibition hall between Poydras and Canal streets, a stone's throw from the Rivergate and the Mississippi River.

Perez Ernst Farnet, a highly respected local architectural firm retained by Harrah's, has produced a lovely sketch intended to allay any fears that a tacky design would offend the sensibilities of those whose idea of beauty is the French Quarter on a spring morning.

But nothing has yet reassured those who believe this is a bad idea for New Orleans.

"The casinos do nothing but cannibalize existing businesses," says C. B. Forgotston, a local lawyer and lobbyist who has emerged as the most outspoken of the opponents. "We're the No. 1 convention destination in America already!"

Mr. Forgotston estimates that 90 percent of the people patronizing the riverboat casinos are local people. "So you're taking from one pocket to put in another. And even if this land-based casino attracts tourists, you're not creating any new wealth or anything. If a visitor to the convention center stops in Harrah's and drops $25 or $50 or $100, that's $25 or $50 or $100 less they are going to spend in the French Quarter and a local shop or a local restaurant."

Harrah's officials are estimating that they will bring an additional 1 million visitors to the city a year -- and they have hired the industry's top cultivators of high rollers to do just that.

Opponents scoff. "There is gambling all over this country now, not just in Las Vegas and Atlantic City," says Mr. Forgotston. "People come to New Orleans for the food and the French Quarter and the ambience. They don't need to come here to gamble."

The casino issue has split the tourism folks, the restaurant industry -- sometimes even families -- right down the middle.

Mr. Forgotston, for instance, was originally hired as an anti-gambling lobbyist by a coalition of concerned restaurateurs led by New Orleans' venerable Ella Brennan. Her branch of the Brennan family owns Commander's Palace, Mr. B's, Bacco's and the Palace Cafe. But another branch of the Brennan family, brothers Ted, Pip and Jimmy Brennan, owners of the fabulously successful Brennan's Restaurant in the French Quarter, is all for gambling.

"New Orleans already has the food, the history and the music," says an enthusiastic Ted Brennan. "Now it's going to have the largest casino in the world under one roof, owned by an extremely reputable company that is going to market itself and New Orleans in a first-class manner all over this country and the world. This is the gravy on the rice."

Ted Brennan and his brothers have fond memories of the World's Fair, which was held in New Orleans in 1984. At that time, too, some restaurant owners worried that visitors to the fair would spend all their time inside the fairgrounds and forget about the rest of New Orleans. It didn't work that way -- especially for Brennan's, which had a breakfast crowd lined up down Royal Street each morning before it opened.

Not only did Brennan's make money during the fair, it made its reputation among a crowd of well-heeled world travelers who went back home singing the praises of dishes such as Bananas Foster and the rest of chef Mike Roussel's repertoire.

But many fear that the casino industry is more rapacious than any competitor the great restaurant families of New Orleans have ever seen. In Nevada and Atlantic City, the gambling lords who run the huge hotel-casino complexes have proven ingenious at luring their patrons to remain inside the casino walls.

Exploding volcanoes

The free drinks, $5.95 steak dinners and Don Rickles shows have given way over the years to indoor jousting, white tigers and exploding volcanoes in Las Vegas' casinos. They still provide free drinks, of course, peddled by hostesses in skimpy outfits, and whatever else it takes to keep people indoors, pulling those slot-machine levers.

With this in mind, the state legislature narrowly prescribed the types of entertainment that could be offered by Harrah's in New Orleans. The casino is not to have hotel rooms -- or restaurants. Already, however, there is haggling over just what constitutes a restaurant -- Harrah's is installing a "food court" -- and some locals are already getting that sinking feeling.

The law was supposed to require the riverboats to cruise the river every three hours, too, but the Flamingo didn't sail once from Jan. 21 to Feb. 13, heading out only after the local district attorney, Harry Connick Sr. (yes, he's the crooner's father), threatened to indict the boat's owners.

When Michael D. Rose, chairman of Harrah's parent company, came to New Orleans to speak recently he hinted -- already -- at the possibility of going to the legislature for future concessions if the company felt it needed them. And why wouldn't it? The firm is spending some $800 million to construct the casino, employing something like 6,000 people and contributing an estimated $100 million a year in direct revenues to the state treasury.

Blaming the gov

It's fashionable among those who fear the worst to blame this mess on the rakish, roguish Edwin Edwards, the governor who figured out how to steer a huge casino into New Orleans -- and then to steer contracts to service the riverboat casinos to his four children, none of whom had experience in the business.

Twice in the 1980s, Gov. Edwards was indicted on charges of accepting bribes to pay off gambling debts. He was convicted neither time, and he still plays high-stakes poker once a week in the governor's mansion in Baton Rouge and still regales his friends and hangers-on with tales of his legendary trips to Las Vegas, trips which included suitcases of cash, say friends who accompanied him.

Louisianans seem to have trouble staying angry with Edwin Edwards, however. Besides, it was Mr. Edwards' predecessor, good-government reformer Buddy Roemer, who approved the riverboats. Mr. Edwards just finished the job.

"The tourism industry was divided, I'd say, 50-50 on this," says Beverly Gianna, an official with the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. When asked why anyone would try to fix something as un-broke as New Orleans' tourism industry, her sigh revealed which side she was on.

"I will say, though," she adds, "that gaming is here. So we'll market it just the way we do any other attraction. And if you don't want to go, don't go."

She's right, of course. The food is still rich and wonderful here. The music is still live, and the spirit of living among residents and tourists alike is still a tangible thing you can reach out and grab.

Yes, the Flamingo is a crowded, noisy little boat where you can avoid the cigarette smoke for a time, but where you can never, never escape the loud, obnoxious noise of slot machines.

But there are other signs that New Orleans will still be New Orleans:

In apparent anticipation of an influx of high-rollers, according to one well-placed woman, One Canal Place, the upscale shopping mall along the river, is getting inquiries from top-end stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, which is already there.

This, in turn, brings back good memories to this vivacious New Orleans resident, who confided that years ago she was one of the women who jetted off for weekends in Las Vegas with Edwin Edwards and his clan.

"Edwin or his brother would give each of the girls $500 to gamble with," she recalled with a laugh. "I never spent a dime of that money in a casino. I'd go shopping!"

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