Music, food trucks, family fun on tap at Fair Grounds _lowres

Advocate file photo by ALEXANDER BARKOFF -- They're Off and Running -- A flock of Canadian geese enjoy an early morning breakfast as they stroll on the turf course at the Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots in New Orleans on Aug. 26, 2014. The race track is in the middle of a 12-day quarter horse meet which ends Friday, Sept. 5, 2014, with the running of the Louisiana Quarter Horse Breeders Association Sales Futurity with a purse of $276,000.

In an effort to boost its revenue stream, the Fair Grounds Race Course and Slots is floating the idea of extending its casino's closing hour from midnight till 3 a.m., a proposal that has been met with mixed reactions from residents in the area.

Over the past several months, operators of the historic Gentilly racetrack have met with several neighborhood organizations to gauge their concerns about how the change might affect the surrounding neighborhood.

The associations representing the areas closest to the track include the Faubourg St. John Neighborhood Association, the Fairgrounds Triangle Association and the Desaix Area Neighborhood Association.

Although no formal proposal has been made to either the neighborhood groups or the City Council, which would have to approve the change, that hasn’t stopped residents from questioning what, if any, benefit the extended hours would bring to them. 

“As someone who lives right across from the racetrack, I deal with noise and trash and car alarms and all the problems that come,” said Bruce Hamilton, a member of the Fairgrounds Citizen Advisory Committee, a board tasked with reviewing the track’s impact on its neighbors. “I just don’t see anything positive for the neighborhood or for the neighbors if the casino stays open until 3.”

Beaux Jones, vice president of the Faubourg St. John Neighborhood Association, said other concerns include traffic accidents near the track, questions regarding security patrols, and what he called “light pollution,” from the glare of the track's lights shining into people's homes.

It’s not the first time the Fair Grounds operators have suggested extending the hours for their slot machines. In 2009, they proposed staying open as late as 4 a.m., but the idea ran into fierce opposition from neighbors, and it fizzled.

However, in the nearly three years since a citywide smoking ban at bars and casinos went into effect, the track operators say they’ve suffered a considerable financial setback after losing customers to competing casinos with later hours and more lax regulations, despite installing an outside smoking patio on the premises.

“Everybody believes that not having smoking is good for the workers and the city,” said Mark Conner, the senior director of marketing for the Fair Grounds. “Having said that, in our business and many others, when you have competitors in neighboring parishes and in Mississippi and the Gulf Coast that don’t have those similar regulations, it makes it extremely competitively challenging.”

In June 2005, following a series of heated debates, the New Orleans City Council voted to allow the installation of hundreds of slot machines, now around 625, at the track.

The operators said the machines provide revenue that is vital to attracting top-flight horses, trainers and jockeys; paying for neighborhood patrols; staffing and producing separate events like exotic animal racing; and contributing to a millage for City Park.

Last year, Churchill Downs Inc., which owns the historic Gentilly racetrack, hired a new president and general manager, Doug Shipley, to oversee operations at the Fair Grounds. Shipley has held meetings with nearby residents at which some have raised concerns over the possibility of increased litter, traffic and crime should the extended hours go into effect. 

Chief among the concerns is whether the track has abided by a set of 21 provisos outlined in a 2005 city ordinance passed when the machines were first authorized. The provisos include things such as a litter abatement program, a traffic impact analysis, a 24-hour NOPD security patrol and landscaping maintenance.

Some residents have expressed doubt whether the Fair Grounds has complied with all the provisos, which are reviewed by the Fairgrounds Citizen Advisory Committee.

Hamilton, who lives on Fortin Street directly across from the track, said trash and traffic are among his prime concerns, and he has doubts whether the Fair Grounds has carried out the landscaping mandate.

“It’s a problem because of the noise and trash, and there’s just no barrier between the Fair Grounds and the houses on the other side of the fence,” he said.

Morgan Clevenger, president of the Fairgrounds Triangle Association, said members of her group also have concerns about the Fair Grounds’ compliance record. She said they hope to receive a written proposal from the track operators “with hard data and evidence of full compliance with all current provisos.”

Her neighborhood is affected by the Fair Grounds "365 days of the year, not just during racing season or Jazz Fest,” Clevenger said in an email. “While everyone appreciates the historic nature of the racecourse, it's important to remember it's a big gambling and alcohol beverage facility in the middle of residential neighborhoods.”

Asked about the track’s compliance with the provisos, Conner, the Fair Grounds official, said there are “varying degrees of understanding" them. 

“We’ll likely be going back through those very specifically, and we feel very confident that we’ve been compliant in all of the provisos, especially based on the interpretation of what each of them required,” he said. 

“There really isn’t a game plan per se,” Conner said of the idea of extending the casino's hours. “It’s something that’s on the radar for Churchill Downs and for us here locally, and we got some good feedback from the neighborhood. We’ll continue to solicit that while we think about maybe formally proposing to extend that to the City Council.”

Follow Helen Freund on Twitter, @helenfreund.