The billboard on Canal Street advertising the coming of the world's largest casino says it all: "Harrah's Casino New Orleans," it reads. "Let the Fun Begin."
To the 9 million people who visit here each year -- they drop some $2.6 billion in the local economy -- and to the 1 million people who live in New Orleans and the surrounding parishes, the Crescent City was already plenty of fun.
This is the Big Easy, cher. It's Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, the French Quarter. It's the Mississippi Riverboat tour -- you can steam up to the zoo and catch the albino 'gators, baby. It's St. Charles Avenue -- yes, there's still a streetcar named Desire. It's coffee and beignets at the Cafe Du Monde, it's dinner at Antoine's, it's jambalaya and gumbo, Dixie beer, music at Tipitina's and Cajun dancing Thursday nights at the Maple Leaf.
This town needed gambling?
Heck, you could always make a sports bet in New Orleans, anyway. And you could get invited to sit in on a decent-stakes poker game, too, provided you had a friendly face and hung around town long enough to make a friend, say a day or two. For those who like their action legal, well, there's already a racetrack, and there's an off-track betting parlor on Bourbon Street.
So, no, New Orleans didn't need gambling. But like most municipalities and state governments these days, it sure needed money. In the '90s, legalizing various forms of gambling is the slickest way for politicians and bureaucrats to raise revenues. They get tax dollars without having to call it a tax.
And now, the dice are rolling in New Orleans along with the bon temps.
As is often the case, the taboo was broken first by riverboat gambling, which, by the way, casino operators are lobbying for in Maryland. (However, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has pledged to veto any bills this year that would legalize such casinos.) Currently, there are 10 such riverboat casinos operating in Louisiana. One of them, the Flamingo, is moored in the tourist district of the city.
Under Louisiana law, 18.5 percent of the gross profits taken in by these casinos goes to the state, and records kept by the state police show that the riverboats are taking in about $80 million a month. When the five remaining boats that have been licensed are in operation, Louisiana is looking at something like $200 million a year in revenues from gaming.
"Obviously, it's not an insignificant amount of money," says Larry Pearson, who publishes a newsletter about the riverboats. In Louisiana, which exempts most of its homeowners from paying property taxes, it's an especially important source of revenue.
In addition, local governments get $2.50 for every person who sets foot in one of the casinos. The Flamingo's riverboat was host to some 213,000 passengers last month.
And these pots of money all figure to get much bigger. On April 16, Harrah's will open a temporary land-based gambling casino in the old Municipal Building near Louis Armstrong Park. A year later, Harrah's will open what is being billed as the largest gaming facility in the world. It will have 6,000 slot machines and more than 200 blackjack, craps and roulette tables in a state-of-the-art 200,000-square-foot building. This Goliath will be located at the edge of the French Quarter in the old exhibition hall between Poydras and Canal streets, a stone's throw from the Rivergate and the Mississippi River.
Perez Ernst Farnet, a highly respected local architectural firm retained by Harrah's, has produced a lovely sketch intended to allay any fears that a tacky design would offend the sensibilities of those whose idea of beauty is the French Quarter on a spring morning.
But nothing has yet reassured those who believe this is a bad idea for New Orleans.
"The casinos do nothing but cannibalize existing businesses," says C. B. Forgotston, a local lawyer and lobbyist who has emerged as the most outspoken of the opponents. "We're the No. 1 convention destination in America already!"
Mr. Forgotston estimates that 90 percent of the people patronizing the riverboat casinos are local people. "So you're taking from one pocket to put in another. And even if this land-based casino attracts tourists, you're not creating any new wealth or anything. If a visitor to the convention center stops in Harrah's and drops $25 or $50 or $100, that's $25 or $50 or $100 less they are going to spend in the French Quarter and a local shop or a local restaurant."
Harrah's officials are estimating that they will bring an additional 1 million visitors to the city a year -- and they have hired the industry's top cultivators of high rollers to do just that.
Opponents scoff. "There is gambling all over this country now, not just in Las Vegas and Atlantic City," says Mr. Forgotston. "People come to New Orleans for the food and the French Quarter and the ambience. They don't need to come here to gamble."
The casino issue has split the tourism folks, the restaurant industry -- sometimes even families -- right down the middle.