Eighteen months after the Louisiana Legislature allowed riverboat casinos to move on dry land, the Gaming Control Board approved the first application to mothball a riverboat and move slots, blackjack tables and other gambling operations onto dry land.
Without objection the eight-member appointed Board approved a plan for Eldorado Resorts to build a new $112.7 million casino between the parking lot and hotel at the Isle of Capri riverboat casino in Westlake, just off Interstate 10 west of the City of Lake Charles.
The new facility will have about 72,000 square feet of gaming space – almost three times the size of the riverboat – more slot machines, 1,271 compared to 1,154 aboard the boat; more tables, 43 to 36; a VIP Lounge; and the only restaurants overlooking the Charles Lake.
Eldorado’s private lawyer, Jeffery Barbin, said this was the first time the Board, the State Police, the Attorney General’s office and a casino tried to put into action to black letter law. “Everyone was trying to figure out the way to go,” said Barbin, a partner in the Baton Rouge office of the Phelps Dunbar law firm.
“It’s personally a big deal for me because it took us a while to get here,” said Ronnie Jones, who chairs the Gaming Control Board.
What kind of information the state needs from the casinos, the types of plans and oversight necessary, the documents and permits needed were all written. But the Eldorado application was first chance to shake down the procedures and set the precedents for the other 14 riverboats looking to come ashore, Jones said.
Several of casinos have taken the initial steps, but the Treasure Chest Casino in Kenner is perhaps the furthest along towards filing the application and plans, he added.
“This is a game changer,” said state Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles and chief sponsor of Act 469, which allows the riverboats to move on land. Act 469 in May 2018 allowed riverboats to put their casino floors on dry land within 1,200 feet of the waterway for which they were licensed to operate.
Twenty-five years ago, when lawmakers, after a long fight, legalized casino gambling, one of the key parts of the deal was that the casinos would only be allowed in riverboats and gambling would only be allowed when the vessels were sailing. Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans was the only gambling operation legally allowed to operate on land.
Those stiff rules changed over time, first with the state dropping the requirement to sail, allowing the casinos to operate from moored riverboats. Then casinos went to absurd lengths, stretching the definition of riverboat. The Golden Nugget Casino Resort in Lake Charles put its gambling floor over a slough invisible to what otherwise looked like a resort complete with a golf course.
Casino owners and state officials are hoping that the landward moves can reinvigorate the state’s largest taxpayers at a time when revenues have stagnated. Legislative and administration economists just last week pointed out tax revenues from gambling were flat. Riverboats, the economists estimated, would contribute $8.6 million to $12.8 million less this fiscal year compared to last. The state took in $715 million a gambling taxes and bout $712 million in severance and other mineral-related taxes for the fiscal year that ended June 30.
The law requires riverboats to provide some "economic development" justification to move on land. Jones said the state Gaming Control Board in order to move to land.
Jones and the Gaming Control Board wanted to see expansion – pools, spas and entertainment – that would bring in more customers and financing enough to accomplish those plans.
“It’s not all about putting money in slot machines. It’s about the experience,” said Board Member Julie Berry, a certified public accountant from nearby Jennings. She said she doesn’t gamble but she would go to the new Eldorado casino for dinner by the lake.
Gary Carano, Eldorado Resorts executive chairman, said he wants improvements to make the smaller Westlake property more competitive with the two Las Vegas-style resorts – Golden Nugget and L’Auberge – a few miles south.
He joked that he couldn’t afford a Frank Sinatra, meaning big celebrity entertainment, so he planned to attract the crowds with food. In addition to a brewery/restaurant and a noodle bar just off the floor where the gambling takes place, the new facility will have three bars and Eldorado executives are in negotiations with local chefs to open their own venues within Eldorado’s food hall. It’s the nongambling amenities, such as fine dining, that will increase the number of patrons and bring in almost as much revenue as are collected from slot machines and craps tables, he said.
Carano expects to start construction by the end January and employ about 300 construction workers. The project should finish in May 2021.
About 22 employees will lose their marine-based jobs. But the number of jobs should increase from 735 to 804 when casino operations move on land, according to the plan.
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