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Political intrigue swirls around casino move threat

Whether it’s a power play to extract concessions, DiamondJacks Casino’s possible move to Tangipahoa Parish carries plenty of political intrigue.

Peninsula Pacific, the parent company of the facility which bought it about a year-and-half ago, has said it has $100 million to invest in the laggard of Bossier City’s four boats. However, that might not happen in Bossier Parish. That company has floated the idea to move the boat to the Amite River in Tangipahoa Parish in a bid to improve its fortunes.

By most measures, DiamondJacks performs worse than any of the 15 non-land casinos in Louisiana. For fiscal year 2016, it registered the second-smallest take, behind only the Amelia Belle located in an area relatively far from state borders with a far smaller population base than Shreveport/Bossier. Its admissions were among the lowest; together, these statistics translated into the smallest take per admission of all state boats.

Things have gotten worse since. For the first half of FY 2018, its take fell below the Amelia Belle’s and ongoing anemic admissions – less than half its cross-interstate neighbor Horseshoe which had almost five times the take – assured it continued to have the lowest take per admission.

The thinking is that the Tangipahoa base could end up as more lucrative. Situated next to St. Tammany Parish, which cannot host a riverboat because in 1996 it voted against allowing such a facility, the 1996 vote in Tangipahoa permitted riverboat casinos and thus one there could tap into that relatively populated market. Apparently, St. Tammany residents prefer playing the nearby Mississippi Gulf Coast casinos not only because for most residents the out-of-state facilities physically are closer but also as they encounter fewer traffic hassles going over the Twin Spans on Interstate 10 to get to New Orleans or navigating the Causeway to get to Kenner.

A Tangipahoa boat could suck in those gamblers. In contrast, competing against five other boats within a couple of miles, the predicament of DiamondJacks confirms fears of a half-dozen years ago that when the area’s newest casino, Margaritaville, opened it would saturate the market instead of expanding it.

However, a move to Tangipahoa requires overcoming several legal hurdles with very uncertain outcomes. While authorized to have a riverboat gaming facility, state law does not permit the Amite River there to host a boat. Of course, that didn’t stop the Amelia Belle in 2001 from getting lawmakers to confirm tiny Bayou Boeuf off the Intracoastal Canal as permissible.

Then, there’s the physical impossibility of berthing a boat that could hold enough space for casino gambling in the microscopic Amite. Yet that could be solved by proposed changes to laws that makes the casinos less amphibian and more landed.

Add to that this all hinges on voter approval. A local option election would have to approve of the siting, and, although in 1996 a slim majority did approve of letting casinos situate, a somewhat larger majority rejected video poker then operating there. Possibly casinos netted approval because then the whole question was theoretical. Now, with one possibly staring them in the face, past results may indicate voters today would reverse on this issue. Plus, the Gaming Control Board must ratify any transfer.

Adding another wrinkle, Tangipahoa boasts Gov. John Bel Edwards as a former resident and his clan still inhabit the area, most prominently Sheriff Daniel Edwards, his brother. This could boost lobbying efforts to make the necessary statutory changes and bring out a favorable vote to make the moving optional credible (which Daniel Edwards could use as a distraction from a federal government probe into his office’s activities).

Still, the whole thing might be no more than a negotiating tactic to make Bossier governments cough up more favorable terms to keep the boat around. Even as DiamondJacks remits the least amount of fees to the state of all the boats, two pay fewer in local fees and nine pay less property taxes – included among the latter all of its nearby neighbors except Horseshoe. These figures give it some leverage to have local governments find ways to reduce those costs in exchange for staying (although it hasn’t helped itself out: the previous owners spent a paltry under $40,000 in FY 2016 on capital improvements, far less than any other boat except one).

So, a high-stakes poker match will ensure over the coming months, as Peninsula Pacific bargains with Bossier while trying to push legislation in the right direction to maximize its options. Intrigue will abound in spades.

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