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Harrah’s still wants to build smoking courtyards after its bid expired

4th January 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

Harrah’s Casino New Orleans, which was unable to get an exemption from the city’s smoking ban, has watched its revenues decline since restrictions on bars and casinos began in late April. What’s more, its application with the City Planning Commission to build outdoor smoking courtyards with slots, filed last summer, has expired. Harrah’s, part of Ceasars Entertainment in Nevada, contributes considerably to the state of Louisiana’s coffers but provides less to the city.

An April 2015 ban on smoking in bars and casinos yanked the fairly vice-tolerant Crescent City along in a movement that started twenty years ago when California restricted smoking in public places. For its part, the city has helped bring bars and casinos into compliance and hasn’t had to fine any of them, Hayne Rainey, spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, said last week.

Harrah’s continues to grapple with the ban, however. Its conditional use application with the CPC to build outdoor courtyards ran out of time in late 2015. “The application has gone beyond the deadline, and for action to be taken, a new one must be filed,” Rainey said. Harrah’s intends to submit a another petition.

“Though our conditional use application hasn’t been heard by the City Planning Commission, our plans remain the same,” Dan Real, Harrah’s senior vice president and general manager, said last week. The casino hopes to build the same structures it applied for last summer.

The state’s Gaming Control Board reported a 15-percent revenue decline at Harrah’s New Orleans in November versus November 2014. Since the city’s Smoke Free Air Act began on April 22, Harrah’s revenue is down about 12 percent—in line with declines at casinos impacted by similar laws elsewhere, Real said. “We continue to work closely with city and state officials to review ways to mitigate challenges from the ban in New Orleans,” he said. “Our key focus remains the development of two first-class, outdoor courtyards that will provide a convenient alternative for our smoking guests.”

The atmosphere in Harrah’s and in the city’s bars is clearer these days. An air-quality study, released in August and conducted by researchers at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, measured fine-particle pollution at Harrah’s and 13 of the city’s bars shortly before the smoke-free law took effect in April. The researchers examined those businesses again in June. Fine-particle air pollution fell by 96 percent in bars that permitted smoking before the ordinance began, while Harrah’s saw a 99-percent reduction. Four venues included in the study that didn’t allow smoking before the ordinance had relatively little pollution afterwards.

The Roswell Park researchers said that casino and bar customers can end up inhaling particles of less than 2.5 microns in diameter, released into the air in significant quantities from burning cigarettes. These particles are associated with pulmonary and cardiovascular disease and death.

Before the city’s restrictions were implemented in April, pollution in the 14 local smoking venues tested by the Roswell researchers was rated as hazardous on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index. Afterwards, pollution levels at those businesses were seen as “good,” according to the index.

But in a red flag about courtyards, the researchers said that before the city’s ban started in April, the two non-smoking businesses that they surveyed with the highest indoor particle levels were those that allowed smoking on adjacent patios and outdoor spaces.

As for Harrah’s application, conditional use is allowed on a site if the city determines that impacts from that use on adjacent properties can be mitigated. Under Harrah’s plans, a courtyard of about 1,900 square feet would be built on the casino’s South Peters Street side, and one of 750 square feet would be on the Convention Center Boulevard side.

To offset revenue declines from the smoking ban, Harrah’s wants to place 62 gaming devices, virtually all slots, in the South Peters yard and another 25 devices in the Convention Center yard. To reach the outdoor yards, patrons would have to enter Harrah’s through its main casino doors. Both courtyards would have security. Some exposure to weather is expected.

These days, it’s more difficult to light up in many spots in the city. Restrictions were tightened at universities and colleges after the state legislature required public institutions of higher learning to go smoke-free in August 2014.

And in a decision announced in late November, “smoking is prohibited in Storyland and City Putt,” City Park spokesman John Hopper said last week. “The new rules here haven’t met with any resistance from the public that I’m aware of,” he said. “We discourage smoking anywhere in the park, particularly around playgrounds and athletic fields where kids tend to be present.”

While earnings have declined at Harrah’s New Orleans since April, casinos in neighboring Jefferson Parish and the state of Mississippi have watched their revenues rise. Smoking is permitted at gambling venues in Jefferson and Mississippi.

Earlier last year, Harrah’s New Orleans asked the state to reconsider a 15-year-old requirement that it maintain 2,400 employees at all times. According to Harrah’s, that job count is based on realities in 2001, after the casino’s opening in 1999. Since then, changes in the industry, its technology and regulations have made paying such a big staff burdensome, the company has argued. But last spring the state legislature denied Harrah’s request to cut 400 jobs.

Since its 1999 opening, Harrah’s New Orleans has paid more than $1.1 billion in total taxes on gaming revenues to the state and has provided over $280 million to the city for its lease. Harrah’s paid the state $73.5 million in taxes on gaming revenues in calendar 2014.

The company’s parent, Las Vegas-based Ceasars, runs 40 casinos and resorts in the United States and Canada, including seven that are non-smoking and others with smokeless gaming zones. Harrah’s in Bossier City operates the Louisiana Downs and Horseshoe Casino, where customers are allowed to light up on the gaming floor.

In 2007, Louisiana banned smoking in schools, workplaces and many public places, including restaurants. But the law exempted casinos and bars, along with any food establishments where sales were mainly alcohol. In June 2009, Louisiana’s House of Representatives rejected ending the bar-and-casino exemption. In May 2010, a state House committee nixed a bill to ban smoking in casinos, and then it rejected a bill to end smoking in bars, casinos and any still-exempt food establishments. In June 2011, the state Senate stopped a bill to ban smoking in bars by a vote of 22 to 15.

Nationally, nearly half the population must comply with smoking bans at workplaces, restaurants and bars, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation in October.

This article originally published in the January 4, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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