On a summer night 23 years ago, Gov. Edwin Edwards delivered bad news to Donald Trump.
The two men were having supper with several others in the small family dining room at the Governor’s Mansion. Trump had flown in his airplane to Baton Rouge in hopes of securing a riverboat casino license, even though the state board had already awarded all 15 licenses two months earlier.
“I told him I was sorry, it wouldn’t be in the cards,” Edwards recalled in an interview Tuesday. “He had come too late. If anybody withdrew, I would get back in touch with him. That never happened.”
Months later, Trump sued the state to overturn the riverboat casino board’s selection process. That approach didn’t work either.
As Trump prepares to move into the White House, officials in Louisiana are hoping he will look favorably on issues important to the state, including relief for Baton Rouge-area flood victims, federal dollars to help restore the eroding coast and the continued flow of federal money for the Medicaid program. Officials note optimistically that Trump carried Louisiana on Nov. 8 with 58 percent of the vote on his way to winning the Electoral College and becoming president.
In winning Louisiana’s vote Tuesday, President-elect Donald Trump received more votes than a…
But beginning with the failed riverboat casino quest, Louisiana provided little good news for Trump the businessman. He had more misses than hits here.
Trump’s most successful venture came during the three years that Shreveport hosted his Miss USA and Miss USA Teen pageant in the late 1990s.
His next effort in Louisiana failed miserably. A planned development to build the Trump International Hotel & Tower in New Orleans’ Central Business District never got off the ground, a victim of Hurricane Katrina and the nationwide financial crisis.
His fourth venture in Louisiana came when he brought the Miss USA Pageant to Baton Rouge in 2014. It was a rousing success that year. But 2015 turned out to be a dud when NBC and Univision pulled out just before the event after Trump, as a presidential candidate, accused Mexican immigrants of bringing drugs, crime and rape into the United States – comments that prompted widespread condemnation.
During all four projects, Trump won friends across the state with his developer’s can-do spirit and a courteous attention to kind gestures. None of the 25 people interviewed for this article reported hearing the president-elect make bigoted or insulting remarks. None of them even heard him discuss politics.
“He was nice, and he was charming,” said Marsanne Golsby, who brazenly asked Edwards to include her in the 1993 dinner with Trump and was surprised when the governor agreed.
Golsby was the state politics reporter at the time for WAFB-TV and covered an event that afternoon at the Governor’s Mansion. She said she was surprised during dessert when Trump pulled out a giant brochure showing models at a modeling agency. “I remember thinking: Why are we discussing this?”
After Louisiana legalized riverboat gambling in 1991, it fell to Edwards’ appointed board in 1993 to decide who got the coveted 15 licenses. Trump applied to operate a boat at the Julia Street Wharf in New Orleans that he would call the Trump Princess. He hired one of Edwards’ closest associates, Bob d’Hemecourt, to make it happen.
But Trump applied late.
“It never really got any consideration,” recalled Ken Pickering, a New Orleans attorney who served as the riverboat casino board’s chairman. “By that time, we had a number that were good and ready to go.”
Despite being shut out, Trump didn’t give up. He flew to Baton Rouge on Aug. 25, 1993. D’Hemecourt met him at the airport and took him to the Governor’s Mansion for dinner. After Trump struck out with Edwards there, they drove to New Orleans and met friends of d’Hemecourt’s in the lobby of the Windsor Court Hotel, where Trump spent the night.
For breakfast the following morning, he met New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee and several others. They discussed gambling and the possibility of Trump bringing an NBA franchise to New Orleans, according to an Advocate account of the gathering.
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Trump tried one more time to get into New Orleans’ burgeoning gambling market. He hired Metairie-based attorney S.C. “Sonny” Garcia to sue the riverboat board in late 1993, accusing them of not following proper procedures in selecting the 15 licenses.
Garcia flew to New York to meet with Trump.
“He had a course he wanted to take, and he was going to do it,” Garcia said Tuesday. “He made no bones about it.”
The lawsuit didn’t prosper, however.
Trump’s misfortune with the gambling boat didn’t deter him when several officials from Shreveport visited New York to pitch that city as the host for the businessman’s Miss USA Pageant.
In all, Shreveport dangled about $1 million in private and public aid, including free hotel rooms and the use of the Hirsch Coliseum at the state fairgrounds, said Preston Friedley Jr., then the president of the Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau and now a real estate broker and small business owner in the area.
“We made sure they would not lose any money at all,” Friedley said. “We made sure we had a solid offer on the table.”
City officials viewed it as a good deal because they expected 3,000 out-of-town visitors for a week and publicity on NBC for the event and the buzz from having celebrity judges and Trump in town.
Trump came to Shreveport in 1996 and 1997 when it was the Miss USA Pageant and in 1998 when the city hosted the Miss Teen USA Pageant.
“A three-year stint hosting that event was something our community was very proud of,” Friedley said, adding that he didn’t begrudge Trump for seeking greener pastures afterward.
Trump returned to Louisiana in 2005 as part of the Trump International Hotel & Tower planned for a parking lot on Poydras Street in New Orleans. The $400 million project called for both luxury condos and a luxury hotel – 700 units in total – in what would be a 70-story building. It would be the biggest in New Orleans and indeed along the Gulf Coast.
The president-elect didn’t actually put up any money. Instead, he agreed to lend his name for $1 million and a share of the proceeds once the building opened.
Then Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and two years later the financial crisis began to dry up lending.
David Brannen, a Pensacola-based developer who had made a fortune building hotels, began with a small interest in the Trump project and took over the shares of partners as they felt the financial squeeze. In an interview Tuesday, Brannen said the project was selling enough condos but forecasts determined that occupancy and room rates would not be high enough to cover the hotel’s costs.
Trump called Brannen at one point.
“I can’t do this in good conscience,” Trump told him. “I’d like to give you back your $1 million.”
Brannen rejected the gesture, saying he needed Trump to remain involved.
Brannen finally admitted defeat in 2009, though, and his lender foreclosed on the property. “I lost $8 million to $10 million in cool, hard cash,” he said.
Parking magnate Jim Huger now owns the parking lot.
Brannen said he has nothing but good memories of dealing with Trump and his children on the project.
“They’re a first-notch family,” Brannen said. “He’s a great father and great businessperson.”
Trump returned to Louisiana in 2014 after city officials in Baton Rouge decided they wanted to host the Miss USA Pageant. As with Shreveport before, they made Trump an offer he couldn’t refuse. It included spending $350,000 in public money and in-kind services to subsidize the event, an additional $1.2 million in public money to modernize the River Center, which would host the pageant, and what eventually became $1.2 million in state tax credits, according to The Advocate.
Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden said he has warm memories of sitting at the same table with Trump during dinner before the actual pageant.
“He was making sure my wife and I were comfortable,” Holden said in an interview.
Trump, state and local officials thought the pageant was a big success.
“We were looking forward to the following year’s event,” said Jay Dardenne, who as the state’s lieutenant governor sat next to Trump during the pageant.
But shortly before the 2015 event, Trump made his incendiary remarks about immigrants. NBC, Univision and several celebrity judges and performers all pulled out. A small cable network was found to broadcast the event, but it attracted only about 20 percent of the originally-expected television audience.
Fewer than 1 million viewers tuned in for the 2015 Miss USA pageant on Sunday, an all-time l…
“It was obviously a huge bust,” said Dardenne, who reduced the amount of state aid as a result.
Nonetheless, D’Hemecourt fondly remembers Trump for inviting him to a 1993 World Series game in Philadelphia and later to his West Palm Beach hotel, Mar-a-Lago.
Friedley marvels that after Trump told the tourism official to look him up if he ever visited New York City, the businessman kept his word the following year and received him warmly.
Edwards appreciates getting invited to Trump’s 50th birthday party in 1996 at his Atlantic City casino, the Taj Mahal, which included a free room and meals befitting the former governor’s status as a high-rolling gambler.
Garcia said he mentioned Trump and his new status to his wife Diane the other day.
“I told her, can you imagine?” he said. “I represented the president of the United States.”
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