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

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

Harrah’s New Orleans Casino failed in a last-ditch effort Thursday to derail the April 22 start of the city’s new ban on smoking in bars and casinos.

Appearing before the City Council, several employees and an attorney for the casino asked the council to delay implementation of the ban to give the casino more time to prepare the building and customers for the change. The attempt, which came during public comment on a vote related to the smoking ban but having nothing to do with the timing of its implementation, went nowhere.

The casino had failed earlier to have itself carved out of the new law altogether.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed the “Smoke-Free Air Act” into law in January. It prohibits smoking cigarettes and electronic cigarettes inside casinos and bars, with the exception of already existing cigar and hookah bars.

An attorney for Harrah’s has said the ban could cut the casino’s revenue by more than 20 percent, cost the city $500,000 in sales taxes and slash by half the $3.6 million the city gets from the state each year under the law allowing the casino to operate. The company also has said it might seek to reduce its payments to the city by between $3.5 million and $13.5 million a year.

Harrah’s employees who spoke Thursday said they feared customers would go elsewhere to gamble when the ban goes into effect.

“What we’re asking you all today, respectfully, is an opportunity to understand really how this impacts one of the largest businesses in the city of New Orleans, both fiscally as well as physically,” Harrah’s attorney Jade Russell said.

With the ban taking effect in two weeks, Russell said, the casino needs more time to implement policies and procedures to comply with the new rules.

“We respectfully request that you consider delaying the implementation date of April 22,” she said.

The only response to the Harrah’s request came from Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who sponsored the smoke-free ordinance. Cantrell took the casino to task for creating what she said is an unsafe work environment for its employees, many of whom she said don’t complain about smoking in the casino only because of fear of being fired. She also accused the company of violating the rights of female employees, though she didn’t explain that.

“I commend my colleagues for standing strong,” Cantrell said. “This city will continue to be supportive of Harrah’s casino in every way possible, but it has to be as it relates to a safe work environment for all people who deserve it.”

The council did some minor housekeeping on the smoking law Thursday, including clarifying that only cigars can be smoked in cigar bars and only hookah pipes can be smoked in hookah bars.

Another amendment made clear that the Fair Grounds casino is included in the ban.

The council also altered the definition of a cigar bar to include businesses that were in the process of getting licensed when the law was passed. That change affects one establishment, La Habana Hemingway on Toulouse Street, which has been serving liquor for at least a year under a state license that defines it as a restaurant. La Habana would have had its permit revoked unless it received a license from the city, which has a ban on new bars in the French Quarter zoning district that includes the store.

The amendment to the smoking ban qualifies La Habana as a cigar bar.

Critics of the change said it has the effect of breaking the prohibition on new bars.

“This proposed text amendment is tailor-made to benefit a single illegally operating entity and flies in the face of sound planned use policy and practice,” said Carol Gniady, executive director of French Quarter Citizens. “It shoehorns in an allowance for a specific bar where none are allowed.”

Councilwoman Susan Guidry agreed with that interpretation, but she was alone in voting against the change. The amendment passed 4-1, with Jared Brossett and Stacy Head absent.