The Los Angeles-based company that bought a financially-troubled Bossier City riverboat casino six years ago in hopes of moving to a more profitable location has found what it’s looking for in St. Tammany Parish.
Casino operator Peninsula Pacific Entertainment, known as P2E, said Monday it has started discussions with local officials on a proposal to build a $250 million casino and resort on a waterfront site near Slidell.
The proposed development, which includes a 250-room hotel, would cover about 50 acres of a 100-acre plot of open land east of the Blind Tiger restaurant.
P2E chief executive Brent Stevens said in an interview Monday that the site just off the Interstate 10 twin spans near Slidell is the best single casino development site he’s ever seen.
Among the advantages, Stevens said, is the proximity to Lake Pontchartrain, Lakeshore Marina and accessibility on the interstate.
The talks are preliminary and there are several big regulatory hurdles that the company will need to clear before the ringing of slot machines and the shouts from craps tables will welcome any gamblers.
For one, St. Tammany Parish residents will have to vote to undo the 1996 referendum in which St. Tammany was among the Louisiana parishes to reject casinos and video poker. The Louisiana Legislature will need to pass a bill in the upcoming spring session to put such a measure on the ballot.
That didn’t happen three years ago when P2E showed an interest in moving the license for the DiamondJacks Casino and Resort from Bossier City to a different site, in southern Tangipahoa Parish. The effort was shot down by state lawmakers before it could gain traction.
Initially, at least, the political climate seems a little friendlier in St. Tammany. And while the company has yet to make a public pitch, it has already started trying to secure support from some elected officials.
Parish President Mike Cooper, Parish Council Chairman Mike Lorino and Slidell Mayor Greg Cromer said that they support letting the voters decide.
Chris Masingill, CEO of St. Tammany Corp., the parish’s economic development agency, said he thinks that the St. Tammany legislative delegation is “supportive conceptually.”
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It’s been 25 years since parish voters rejected casinos and video poker and a little over a decade since former Parish President Kevin Davis ran into a buzzsaw of opposition — much of it faith-based — when he floated the idea of a gaming complex in the Slidell area.
The 1996 vote showed 62% against casinos and 52% turning thumbs-down to video poker.
But Cooper said he thinks public sentiment has changed when it comes to gaming. He points to the vote last November on sports betting, which passed with 67% of the vote in St. Tammany and carried every precinct.
Lorino said that the company’s successful track record in other states, as well as in Louisiana with the Evangeline Downs Racetrack and Casino, is an advantage.
Also, he said, the casino would be on land — not a gambling boat.
“Times change, no matter what the issue is,” Lorino said. “Maybe years ago this project would have had an issue.”
DiamondJacks in Bossier has been closed since last year. While it is one of the 15 state riverboat casino licenses, a 2018 change in state law now allows the gambling operations to happen on land instead of restricting them to water.
The casino would also need the approval of the state Gaming Control Board, which it has not yet applied for.
If it gets all the approvals, the company said it hopes to break ground this December and be operational in early- to mid-2023. The still unnamed casino would be the fourth large gambling venue in the metro area, joining Harrah’s in New Orleans, Boomtown in Harvey and Treasure Chest in Kenner.
“A lot of our citizens go to Mississippi, some to New Orleans. If you have this nice site, they’ll save the drive and spend money in St. Tammany Parish,” Lorino said.
Cromer, who campaigned for mayor in 2018 on the need to bring economic development to the region, said Monday that the $250 million investment — and the company’s promise to buy from local vendors and hire local subcontractors wherever possible— would add a boost to the local economy.
Construction is expected to bring nearly 1,700 jobs, according to the company, and 1,900 jobs during operation, more than 1,000 of which will be directly generated by the casino.
The casino will pay 5% of its gaming revenue to the parish, according to the company, which is projected to generate about $7.5 million annually. Overall, the casino and resort is projected to generate about $10 million per year in tax revenue for local government.
P2E has also agreed to put $30 million toward a community sports and family entertainment complex in eastern St. Tammany that would provide a place for local recreation but also draw large-scale tournaments that bring in visitors. Voters in 2015 rejected a tax proposal to finance such a facility, the proposed Camellia Park near Slidell.
The facility would be large enough for high school graduations, something the parish lacks.
“That was big for us, enough to make us stand up and listen,” Cromer said.
The company also agreed to pay $5 million toward a long-sought levee to protect the Slidell area.
Stevens said that those agreements came from listening to local officials and that now the company plans a “listening tour,” to find out what the community wants.
The company has done that for developments in other places, he said. In Wichita, Kansas, for example, P2E learned that what people really wanted was a place to show horses and have rodeo events. They built an equestrian center before even building a casino.
“At the end of the day, they do get the final say,” Stevens said. “If they don’t want us, we don’t want to be there.”