In The News › Nagin folding hand on casino zone

Oct 19, 2005

Source: Times-Picayune

Nagin folding hand on casino zone

Nagin folding hand on casino zone
Rebuilding east N.O. undecided, he says
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
By Bruce Alpert and Martha Carr
Staff writers

WASHINGTON — Mayor Ray Nagin’s controversial proposal to make a downtown casino zone a key component of New Orleans’ post-Katrina economic recovery strategy appears to have died as quickly as it was born.

Testifying Tuesday before two House Transportation subcommittees on Capitol Hill, Nagin said he has given up on his idea to let a handful of the city’s largest hotels develop on-site casinos.

“The governor didn’t much like the idea, so it is pretty much dead,” Nagin told a House hearing on “a vision and strategy for rebuilding New Orleans.”

Though Nagin expressed confidence that the areas of the city that lie west of the Industrial Canal can and should be rebuilt, he left open the question of how extensive the reconstruction should be in eastern New Orleans and the Lower 9th Ward, which suffered the worst flooding.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco, on the other hand, told committee members that the city and state are far from determining if any area of the ravaged city should be returned to flood plain.

Nagin, known for tossing grand schemes on the table without any action plan in place, caught the city and state political establishments off guard earlier month when he proposed letting more than a half-dozen large hotels open gambling halls that would compete directly with Harrah’s New Orleans Casino at the foot of Canal Street.

By the looks of things Tuesday, it appears the proposal surprised many in Washington as well.

Rep. Charles Dent, R-Pa., a member of one of the two House Transportation subcommittees conducting the hearing, said he considered the casino proposal “one of the last things” the city should be doing to bring back business after the hurricane.

Instant opposition

The mayor’s gambling proposal appeared doomed from the start.

Hours after Nagin unveiled the idea at a news conference, locals began jamming radio talk show phone lines to lash the mayor for suggesting that the casino industry would be the savior of a city already plagued with poverty and crime.

Blanco more politely registered her disapproval, urging the mayor to be cautious in looking toward gambling as a quick fix to the city’s economic problems. “I have never believed that gambling should be the base on which to build our economy,” she said.

Several local watchdog groups also expressed concern, saying Nagin was floating a half-baked proposal before getting citizen input.

“These proposals that profoundly impact land use or the character of the city should be coming out of a planning process with broad-based citizen participation instead of pronouncements from City Hall,” said Janet Howard, president and CEO of the Bureau of Governmental Research.

The casino proposal even fell flat with the mayor’s hand-picked “Bring New Orleans Back Commission,” with several members expressing concern that Nagin sprang it on the city like a rabbit-out-of-the-hat trick.

Archbishop Alfred Hughes, a predictable opponent to any plan to expand gambling, was the first to tell Nagin that the proposal “sends the wrong message.” He added, “I’m not sure we have to appeal to the lesser instincts.”

Nagin’s plan also received a lukewarm reception from the city’s largest hotels, which would have been allowed to compete with Harrah’s. Sheraton General Manager Dan King said Tuesday he was disappointed the idea was not fully vetted.

“I knew it was kind of a long shot, I guess, but it was worth looking into,” King said. “I guess we’ll save that for another day.”

Officials with Harrah’s, which has a monopoly to operate the city’s only land-based casino, expressed dismay early on that Nagin floated the idea before consulting them.

Now that Nagin has dropped the plan, a Harrah’s spokeswoman said the company stands ready to help the rebuilding effort in any way it can.

“I think that right now New Orleans is still looking for the best way to proceed,” said Jan Jones, senior vice president for governmental relations and communications for Harrah’s Entertainment.

“We’re more than willing to be part of the solution, but I think elected officials at all levels need to determine their priorities,” she said.

Jones said that while Harrah’s has no firm timetable for reopening, it is aiming to open by Mardi Gras, but likely not before.

“We’re in New Orleans for the long run,” she said.

Rebuild or relocate?

Another potentially fiery issue was touched upon Tuesday, when several members of the House subcommittees pressed Nagin and Blanco on whether they are identifying areas of the city that may be too vulnerable to future hurricanes to rebuild.

Blanco, who testified via video from Baton Rouge, said the state will rely on national and international experts to advise it on how best to develop stronger building codes. She also said those experts would tackle the issue of whether some communities should not be redeveloped, but said that the state and city aren’t anywhere close to making such judgments.

Nagin, however, said he believes that the area west of the Industrial Canal is best positioned to be redeveloped first, and that questions still remain about what will happen with rebuilding in the Lower 9th Ward and eastern New Orleans. Nagin said he’s been assured by the Army Corps of Engineers that it will be able to quickly re-establish levees that would protect against storm surges of up to 17 feet west of the Industrial Canal.

“We will have a pretty self-contained area to really grow and get our city back,” said Nagin, who told the House members that he thinks the city’s population can return to 300,000 to 350,000 in short order.

“The question is on the east bank of the Industrial Canal, which had the most significant flooding, which is New Orleans east and the Lower 9th Ward,” Nagin said. “How do we protect that? And that question has not been answered yet. The rest of the city we can rebuild and we can make it one of the most livable, one of the most unique cities in the world.”

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the subcommittee on water resources and environment, told Nagin that despite what he might have heard, he knows of no one in the congressional leadership who isn’t committed to rebuilding New Orleans. Questions remain, however, as to whether there are parts of the city that should be returned to flood plain.

“For example, after the 1993 Midwest floods, a number of communities chose to use FEMA mitigation funds to relocate out of harm’s way rather than rebuild,” Shuster said. “Are there high-risk areas of the city that should be relocated instead of being rebuilt?”

. . . . . . .

Frank Donze contributed to this report.

Bruce Alpert can be reached at bruce.alpert@newhouse.com or (202) 383-7861. Martha Carr can be reached at mcarr@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3306.

Oct 19, 2005

Source: Times-Picayune

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