A Louisiana House of Representatives committee moved forward two bills Wednesday (March 21) that would extend Harrah’s New Orleans gambling contract with the state by 30 years and allow more restaurants and entertainment options at the casino complex, including a new luxury hotel.
Caesars Entertainment Corp. is seeking to make its Harrah’s New Orleans site far more like the all-encompassing casinos in Las Vegas. It plans to add a Vegas-style night club, spa, state-of-the-art pool and a restaurant run by a nationally-recognized “celebrity chef” such as Gordon Ramsey. A New Orleans-focused food hall, a new venue for musicians and improved street entrances and landscaping would also be part of the expansion.
The larger facility would not include more gambling. In fact, the entire purpose of the project would be to provide more amenities that have nothing to do with table games, video poker or slot machines at all.
House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, and state Rep. Jimmy Harris, D-New Orleans, sponsored the bills. Barras’ legislation, House Bill 553, is supposed come up for consideration by the full House. Harris’ is considered a backup bill, in case Barras’ proposal runs into trouble, but the two pieces of legislation essentially do the same thing.
Even if the Legislature approves the proposal, the New Orleans City Council will still have to sign off on the project before it can begin. The expansion has significant support from New Orleans’ elected officials.
New Orleans Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell came to the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee meeting Wednesday where both pieces of legislation were considered. She said she backs the legislation but wants to review the details of the plan that Harrah’s has laid out. She refused to say what portions of the plan need more scrutiny.
Many casinos no longer get most of their income from gambling. They derive 70 percent of their revenue from services such as restaurants, night clubs and other forms of entertainment. Those options need to be expanded at Harrah’s, said David Satz, chief lobbyist for Caesars Entertainment.
Harrah’s should be able attract people from the Northeast and Southeast who don’t want to go all the way to Las Vegas and consider New Orleans a closer option for that type of vacation, he said. Satz said Caesar’s is committed to transforming its New Orleans property into “much more of a non-gaming entity.”
Harrah’s contract with Louisiana is scheduled to end in July 2024. Barras’ bill would extend the deal another 30 years. In exchange for the extension, Caesar’s is required to invest another $350 million into its facility, according to the legislation.
The bill also requires Harrah’s to pay an additional $3.4 million to the state every year and free up another $3.6 million in state funding by having the casino take over another type of payment to New Orleans. The casino already contributes $60 million annually to the state, mostly for schools and education. The $3.4 million in new Harrah’s revenue would be dedicated to early childhood programs. These higher payments would start Aug. 1, 2018.
The legislation would also remove many restrictions on the types of restaurants and hotels that Harrah’s could operate. When the casino was initially approved in the 1990s, limitations were placed on the non-gambling activities it could offer. At the time, New Orleans’ restaurants and hotel groups were concerned the casino wouldn’t benefit the rest of the city economically if people didn’t have to leave for meals or entertainment.
Those concerns seem to have disapated, and Caesar’s has signed pacts with the Louisiana Restaurant Association and Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association to work on their plans for a new hotel and more restaurants. Several New Orleans’ business groups are also supportive of the expansion.
Even the group most likely to oppose gambling doesn’t plan to block Harrah’s plans for an expansion of non-gamling operations. Louisiana Family Forum, an umbrella group for conservative Christian congregations, said it isn’t opposed because the project doesn’t involve a casino expansion. It’s only upset about the extension of the contract for gambling for another 30 years.
The Harrah’s legislation is one of three dozen bills that would change gambling in Louisiana if approved. Senate and House committees have also given tentative approval for adjustments to riverboat casinos, racetracks and video poker truck stops so far. Legislation to legalize sports betting, fantasy sports and internet gambling has not been considered yet.