Sunday’s Town Talk featured a letter from local retired businessman Joseph Appalucci (here) promoting once again casino gaming as a the economic boon our downtown area needs. I thought I’d mention this because it’s a topic that comes up with pretty much the same pros and cons listed over and over again. This idea is floated probably every 3 months or so in the TT and much more often outside of the regular media and it brings up some interesting points that merit local discussion.
Firstly, there is the logical supporting argument for casino gaming:
1. It works. In similar communities in our region who have dealt with similarly derelict parts of their cities which had no solid economic engine, Casinos provided the stimulus needed to promote desired growth. They have been used to revitalize Shreveport, Bossier City, Biloxy, Gulfport, Natchez, Lake Charles, Vicksburg, Kenner, Harvey, and any other number of communities.
2. Tax Dollars. Casino gaming brings in millions in otherwise unavailable tax revenue. Even in communties like Marksville or Kinder where gaming is controlled by independent Native American Tribes, the amount of tax revenue directly contributed to the local governments has made for an absolute transformation of the tax base and provided much needed funding for schools and infrastructure.
3. Add-on Businesses. Casinos bring in people who not normally visit an area. Most of their patrons are rarely locals. These people bring in their own money to spend at the casino, but also stay in local hotels that would otherwise be unoccupied, eat at local restaurants, buy local fuel, shop in local stores. In every area in our region with casino gaming this has resulted in the opening of new businesses and the economic revitalization of the areas serving the casinos. These are generally non-gaming related businesses that again the local economy could not support alone.
4. Economic Impact. Along with bringing in new businesses, and especially with bringing in new customers, casinos generally raise area wages which helps grow the local economy in general. One of the primary problems of our region is the high number of minimum-wage jobs. The minimum wage even in its new $7 per hour form is laughable and has been for years. Back in 1998 I worked on a study that showed the living wage for Cenla was $14 per hour based on a 40-hour week. That’s twice the soon-to-be minimum wage and that was back when gas was $1 and milk was $2.50. Casinos generally pay their employees considerably more than minimum wage, and then other businesses (many who are national and pay much more for the same employees elsewhere) then must compete for those in the labor pool. It doesn’t hurt business, but it does help out our poorest workers.
5. Cultural Impact. Because casinos need to draw people into their gaming floors they often host concerts, sporting events, and other activities that their host communities fail to provide on their own. If you doubt this simply check the local listings for ticketmaster. The big name performers are at Paragon Casino, not the Coliseum. In addition more funding and funds available within the community mean that that community can support things like museums, theme parks, etc. Then there are ancillary benefits. For example Biloxi is home to a Campus of Tulane University. It was funded initially by a joint effort of the Gulf Coast casinos. They wanted a place to train casino workers and in return Biloxi gets access to the resources of Louisiana’s top university. With three casinos in the metro area and two more on their way to Natchez 35 minutes away, there is no reason we shouldn’t be exploring a similar relationship.
Then there are the opposing arguments:
1. Casinos cause an increase in crime. Although I’m not trying to sound like a pro-gambling person, I have to point out that there has never been one legitimate study that has supported this theory. In fact, in every community in the region with gaming, crime has dramatically decreased consistently since the arrival of casinos. This is most likely due to the increase in quality of life and opportunity for the regions’ poorest residents. Several studies have however shown that as economic opportunity increases crime decreases. This has been the case in New Orleans as the incident levels of crime int he areas surrounding the Casino have decreased consistently since its opening.
2. Locals will spend all their money. Again, statistics show that Casino patrons tend to be by and large out of state visitors. Even so, with Marksville 18 miles south, Creola across the city limits, Natchez 35 minutes east, Kinder 35 minutes southwest, and Opelousas 45 minutes south access to gaming is a moot point. If people want to give their money to casinos in Cenla, they certainly can and will do it.
3. People here don’t want Casinos. Again despite the very vocal moral minority which seems more interested in creating an new puritanism than anything else, the popularity and long-term viability of gaming in our region seems to show that both locals and visitors do indeed want Casinos and will support them.
The way this debate usually goes is someone says the thing we need in downtown Alexandria is a Casino be it riverboat or land-based. Usually within seconds that person is being lambasted and crucified for having the audacity to mention the idea. Most of the time this assault is led from the pulpit of a handful of local churches who despite the small percentage of local support they receive feel they are somehow the powerhouses of local political and cultural thought. Logic, research, and true needs quickly go out the window and by the end of the day a ton of biblical references are quoted and the person (and any supporters) is condemned to hell along with gays, drinkers, democrats and PhD candidates.
There is one thing I did notice however about some of the comments regarding this most recent letter. People here, even those who oppose gambling, drinking, music and books based on some religious premis do want to have all the things Casino gaming would bring to the area.
They want strong anchors in downtown. They want cultural and recreational venues. They want restaurants and theatres, hotels, tourists — all the things those other cities with casinos now have but didn’t in the past. But, they want us to have it all without gaming.
So I ask you, how?
Seriously, how do we get a theme park, water park, restaurants, etc? How do we get our wages off the minimum wage? How do we bring in major acts and entertainers? How do we increase our tax base without taxing our local population?
There may be an answer somewhere hiding behind the formula for cold fusion and affordable hydrogen cars, but so far we haven’t managed to find it.
We have however watched as our neighbors have prospered with the assistance of gaming in their communities.
So, do we allow the status quo to continue, or is it time to bring Casino gaming back up for a vote? Perhaps we should have our legislative delegation promote opening select locations in Rapides to land-based gaming like was done with Harrah’s in New Orleans. It would be a great core component of a new Hot Wells resort. Riverboats would provide a great customer draw for the Bentley and Holiday Inn hotels.
It’s worth more than just talking about this idea.
How do we go about bringing that up for a vote? I’d like to see some improvement in Alexandria and CenLa in general. I’ll lend my support in any way I can.
Drew, I almost wrote about Appalucci’s letter myself. To be sure, people have been talking about turning the Bentley into a casino for well over four years, and the concept isn’t exactly a novel idea.
First, as you point out, there are legal and legislative hurdles to accomplishing such a task. Second, and perhaps more importantly, one needs to consider that the City of Alexandria does not own the Hotel Bentley. The Hotel Bentley is owned by Bob Dean and is currently being optioned by a private company. Because it is under option, Bob Dean is dealing exclusively with this company. This has been the case for nearly two years.
“Pie in the sky” scenarios are instructive, but they are not always actionable. Mr. Appalucci’s proposal calls for only the bottom floor of the Bentley to become a casino, with the remainder of the massive complex to be subdivided into a multi-use facility. I cannot envision a scenario in which a basement casino could compete against Coushatta or Paragon in any tangible way. Again, this may sound like a quick and easy fix, but how feasible is it? What good is a novelty casino?
There are a handful of ways in which the Hotel Bentley can become solvent without transforming the Bentley and Mirror Rooms into a casino– with rows of slot machines and occasional poker, craps, or blackjack tables.
Maybe I’m too much of a preservationist, but, with all due respect to Mr. Appalucci, I have vivid memories of the thriving Hotel Bentley, and relatedly, I remember what the Bentley and Mirror Rooms were like in their heyday. Four years ago, when Mr. Appalucci arrived from Pennsylvania, the Bentley was closed (or on the verge of closing).
It may be necessary for current and/or future ownership to consider multi-use models, instead of purely looking at projected hotel occupancy proformas, but I still believe the challenges and the opportunity costs associated with a basement casino are difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.
I agree definitely. The Bentley should remain the Grand Hotel it is. I can remember the great feeling of playing with the Cenla Big Band in the Bentley’s rooms. It actually felt like 1945 in there.
I do however feel Casinos are our best bet, but I would think Riverboats attached to the Bentley-Hilton-Convention Centre complex would be the way to go. Adding a gaming operation across the levee, then allowing for the privately owned hotels, restaurants and such to thrive adjacent in our downtown.
Places with successful gaming outcomes are generally those in which three or more casinos operate in a common area. Biloxi or Bossier City are prime examples of this. If we go for gambling we need to go full force with it. But we need to make it an added augmentation to our development plans, not the centerpiece
You’re absolutely right, Drew – go full force. Three Riverboat casinos and a land-based casino at Louisiana Downs furnish thousands of jobs in Bossier Parish and millions of tax dollars.
As for the Bentley, I hope you can preserve it in good fashion. It is a treasure.
what about high end condos for local business people that work downtown?
Drew, I think those are legitimate proposals that should be openly debated and discussed by the community at-large. I have seen numerous models that I consider to be a good bet, but I would hasten to suggest that anything in particular is a panacea or “our best bet.” Our focus needs to be multi-pronged.
Improving the infrastructure and expanding economic development opportunities in the neighborhoods contiguous with Downtown, many of which are low-income and blighted, is essential. One of the main problems with Downtown right now is that it functions as an island; it’s choked off by the Pineville Expressway to the East, the OK Allen Bridge to the West, I-49 to the South, and the Red River to the North. Transportation infrastructure needs to be put into place in order to connect the City, mitigating the impacts of I-49 (which dead-ended numerous residential streets to the South, resulting in a substantial decrease in traffic counts along Third Street) and providing for connectivity between three of the most important parts of the City, all three of which are along our riverfront. It’s also worth noting that the Pineville Expressway and — because of the construction of the new addition– Rapides Regional have both cut off traffic flow, to the east and the west.
That said, I think we can, in tandem with this, create housing opportunities in Downtown, as mentioned by DLC. There is definitely an interest, and despite what any naysayers may say, there’s no doubt (in my opinion) that the very first Downtown housing opportunity would sell and/or rent out within a couple of months. And there are numerous tax incentives and credits already available to people who own property Downtown:
— Restoration Tax Abatements
— Historic Tax Credits
— New Market Tax Credits
— Renewal Zone incentives
Downtown housing would be huge. Personally, I like revitalization models based on housing and reclaiming an entire area. While I think a big box entertainment venue such as a casino, marina, aquarium, etc. etc. can create an immediate boost, we need to ensure the entire area is vibrant, not simply the Bentley-Holiday Inn complex. There is vacant, blighted, and adjudicated property throughout the area, and this creates serious quality of life issues.
Again, personally, I believe we should be more focused on the larger problem, instead of narrowly focusing on a single project. (And don’t get me wrong, I think you pose a really interesting proposal. I just hope we can place things in context).