Mayor-elect Cantrell: Casino deal 'doesn't have to happen now'

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Mayor-elect Latoya Cantrell says it may not be a bad idea to press pause on a new 30-year deal for Harrah's casino, and recent revelations about the possible sale of the casino and the hotel have state lawmakers talking about shelving the deal, as well.

The fight to land the original casino contract for New Orleans was intense back in the 1990s, with casino interests from all over the world in the bidding. But this year's contract renegotiation is another story.

"I'm concerned about the city and the state getting the best deal. Right now that doesn't exist, and there's more work to be done," said state Senator and bill co-author Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans.

No competition this time around. Harrah's has been working the halls of the State Capitol to pass a bill in the Legislature to extend its exclusive New Orleans casino contract for 30 years, even though the current deal is in place through 2024.

"This has to be the most heavily lobbied bill in recent memory, and after all the briefings, lawmakers are scratching their heads because no one told them Harrah's is selling this casino potentially," said FOX 8 political analyst Mike Sherman, who does land-use legal work for several clients, including hotel owner and casino extension critic Joe Jaeger.

Sherman said the deal now before the House could see Harrah's sell its operations, and he said it might be better for the city to take over under the current contract.

"For the citizens of New Orleans, in six years you can own that building free and clear worth hundreds of millions of dollars," said Sherman.

The bill to extend the contract was sponsored by House Speaker Taylor Barras. It sailed through the House but is now stuck in Senate committee after new details emerged about a possible sale.

"If the contract is extended, so is the lease. So that bounty would be deprived from the city and the same goes for the state," said Sherman.

"It's incumbent for the mayor-elect and the governor to make sure the citizens of the state and the city are best-served," said Peterson.

Wednesday afternoon, Cantrell offered this: "It's a work in progress. No, it doesn't have to happen now, but it's a work in progress."

But Harrah's says it wants the deal done now.

"It's really important that we move now. Number one, last year alone we turned away over 93,000 visitors to the city because we just don't have access in our hotel," said Dan Real with Harrah's parent company, Caesar's Entertainment.

Harrah's also put out a statement saying: "We feel confident this proposal is a win-win for the city and state and have been working with our officials on making it the best it can be for taxpayers. Harrah's has offered $7 million more per year, plus a projected $21 million more per year in taxes than what we are paying now. It is worth billions to the city and state."

Harrah's also said there are no plans to sell, however, a company called Vici has an option to become a leaseholder of the property, with a long-term sublease back to Harrah's New Orleans.

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