N.O. gambling revenue flat despite Harrah’s gain _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Harrah's casino New Orleans.

With the clock ticking toward the April 22 implementation of New Orleans’ new indoor smoking ban at bars and other public places, Harrah’s Casino is making another attempt at carving out an exemption for itself.

It is calling on the City Council to allow patrons to light up in at least some parts of the giant casino.

But with no sign the council will budge on the unanimously approved measure, Harrah’s also is considering making the city share its pain by seeking to renegotiate its lease, a move that could stop the flow of millions of dollars a year into city coffers.

Harrah’s leases the city-owned land on which the casino was built.

Exactly what Harrah’s is proposing is unclear. Company officials have considered a variety of options, including splitting the casino down the middle into smoking and nonsmoking sections or building smaller lounges for smokers.

“Our goal has just been to open the lines of communication with the council and show them we’re trying to make a good-faith effort to come to the table with what we believe to be a balanced solution,” said Jade Russell, a spokeswoman for the casino.

Harrah’s fought hard to be left out of the smoking ban, which Russell said could reduce its revenue by more than 20 percent, based on how similar measures have affected its other locations. That could threaten to cut in half the $3.6 million the city gets from the state each year under the law allowing the casino to operate. It could also mean a $500,000 reduction in the amount the city collects in sales tax from the casino, Russell said.

Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who proposed and championed the smoking ban, rejected any talk of loosening the ban at Harrah’s.

“Harrah’s is one of the largest employers in the city. ... If they’re allowed to not be involved in the smoking ban, then we’ve defeated the overall purpose of protecting the quality of the work environment for our most vulnerable people,” Cantrell said.

While debate on the smoking ban centered on its effect on bars, Harrah’s was a major presence throughout the discussions. The impact the ban would have on revenue from the casino was often cited by opponents of the ordinance, while one of the most moving speeches in favor of the measure came from a Harrah’s employee who said he developed cancer from his years working at the casino even though he didn’t smoke.

“What I’ve heard very clearly from those employees is they were looking forward to a day where they could go to work and not have to go home with nosebleeds, not have to go home with respiratory problems, not have to be afraid to go to the doctor to get an MRI, not have to go home smelling like a cigarette,” Cantrell said.

“These are the people who are on the front lines of this,” she added.

Should the council stand firm, Harrah’s would have to look at renegotiating its lease with the city, Russell said. She said it is allowed to open those discussions if the council passes a measure that affects its revenue. The casino would likely seek to reduce its payments by between $3.5 million and $13.5 million a year, she said.

Brad Howard, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, said the administration disagrees that the smoking ban would allow Harrah’s to reopen contract negotiations.

Staff writer Jaquetta White contributed to this story. Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.