Locals react to recommendation that riverboat casinos be allowed to operate on land

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Local state lawmakers weigh in on a recommendation that riverboat casinos in the state be allowed to operate on land, if they so choose.

The Treasure Chest on Lake Pontchartrain in Kenner and Boomtown on the west bank of Jefferson Parish in Harvey would benefit from such a move, along with other casino boats. The state has a total of 15.

"It's just a question of modernizing, bringing things up to speed as to the changes that have occurred," said Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner.

The Louisiana Economic Development and River Boat Gaming Task Force recently recommended that casino vessels be allowed to build facilities within 1,200 feet from their current berth locations for on-land gaming.

"It makes no sense for the Treasure Chest boat in my district to sit out there in the water when they have all that land that can be developed," said Martiny, who sits on the task force.

Though they're boats, they're not used that way. In 2001, state law was changed to allow gaming boats to be permanently docked, something the industry sought.

"And we did it though and we increased their, the percentage of the profits that they had to turn over to us," Martiny said.

But some local state lawmakers said not so fast.

Senate President and dean of the legislature John Alario said he recognizes that casinos like Boomtown are major employers. But he said he wants to see the fine print of the proposals.

"We need to be careful we're not giving away too much. We have a limited number of licenses…We don't want them going to build a metal building on land and say, 'Okay, we've lived up to our obligation.' We want to see something substantial come out of it," said Alario, R-Westwego.

Rep. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, said he will sponsor a bill for the upcoming legislative session that would reflect the task force's recommendations.  Johns said it's not about expanding gambling in the state, and he said his legislation will require riverboat casinos to build on land facilities that are appropriate and that will aid economic development.

The New Orleans Fair Grounds race track has an off-track betting parlor in walking distance from the Treasure Chest. The Fair Grounds said had no comment on the recommendations.

Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn issued a statement:

"We are currently reviewing the Committee's recommendations.  We remain in active contact with our legislators, including Senators Danny Martiny and Gary Smith who serve on the Task Force.  We look forward to further discussions with our legislators and constituents during the legislative session as these proposals continue to be vetted. We are grateful for the opportunity to address these issues at this crucial time in Louisiana's fiscal history."

West bank State Rep.Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, said while it is likely time to tweak the law, he said any additional revenues resulting from such a change should be dedicated to areas like education and the state's TOPS scholarship - and not end up in a slush fund.

Martiny said when riverboat casinos across Louisiana are more competitive and profitable, it's good for the state's bottom line.

"The one thing that the gaming industry has going for it right now is our billion-dollar deficit and people looking for a stable funding stream for a lot of different things we need to do," said Martiny.

Even land-based Harrah's Casino in New Orleans seeks changes.

"So they are looking at trying to develop the second floor on Harrahs for a restaurant, entertainment venues and the like, and I think that's a plus, but again we want to make sure that they are investing the monies in the proper way," Alario said.

Harrahs did not respond to FOX 8's inquiry.

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