Last Modified: Saturday, December 08, 2012 9:45 PM
On Dec. 8, 1993, casino gambling in Lake Charles officially began. Since then, the local market has become one of America’s top 20 performers.
Players II Casino Riverboat, a $30 million paddlewheel boat that cruised the lake on 90-minute excursions, was the city’s first gambling facility. The vessel, which hosted 200 people on its maiden voyage, offered slot machines and table games to patrons.
Players International, the boat’s owner, had a plan to invest millions into the virgin gambling market with intentions of creating 700 jobs and a $17 million payroll.
Even though there was opposition to the new business venture, the need for jobs overtook moral concerns and local residents, politicians and business leaders decided to allow the industry to get a foothold in the area.
Almost 20 years later, the Southwest Louisiana gambling market has grown into one of the nation’s most profitable with operations like Pinnacle Entertainment’s L’Auberge Casino Resort, Isle of Capri Casino Hotel in Westlake, Boyd Gaming’s Delta Downs Racetrack Casino Hotel in Vinton, and Coushatta Casino Resort in Kinder all garnering huge profits from gamblers, along with enticing tourists to the area.
Shelley Johnson, executive director of the Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau, said nobody in the early 1990s thought the gambling industry would have such a strong impact on the local economy.
“Back then there was no precedence and we did not have the full realization of what gaming would do for our area,” she said. “Gaming has had a super impact on tourism. Who would think that today 300,000 people visit the area on the weekend? That has allowed tourism to become a market indicator for the parish like the petrochemical, aviation and other industries.”
According to a 2012 regional economic outlook report compiled by the H.C. Drew Center for Business and Economic Analysis at McNeese State University, casino gambling in Calcasieu Parish is a $700 million-a-year industry.
The Lake Area’s gambling market growth coincides with the overall development of the industry within the Bayou State.
According to the American Gaming Association, as of December 2011, Louisiana ranked fifth in the amount of money spent at casinos at $2.37 billion. Nevada was first with $10.7 billion.
In 2011, Louisiana’s casino outlets — 14 land-based or riverboat casinos, four racetrack casinos, three tribal casinos and 2,159 electronic gaming devices — generated $569.2 million in wages and $573.1 million in tax revenues and served 32 million customers. Combined, all of the casinos created 17,207 jobs in 2011.
Of the nation’s top 15 individual casino markets, Lake Charles ranks 13th, ahead of Reno, Nev., and New Orleans.
David Painter was a member of the Lake Charles City Council when riverboat gambling began in the 1990s. Looking back at the decision to allow the industry to operate in the city, Painter thinks the outcomes have been remarkable.
“I made the decision to vote for riverboat gaming because Lake Charles needed jobs. I was willing to take a chance. The impact has been good since we don’t have as much unemployment,” he said.
“It does surprise me that it mushroomed liked it did. But I know we thought riverboat gaming was going to provide a great opportunity since Lake Charles is so close to Texas.”
Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach was a state representative when riverboat gambling policy was being created. He believes the region has benefited from changes in the way riverboats are built.
“The Gaming Control Board modified design standards, and that allowed L’Auberge du Lac resort to build its riverboat into a barge-like structure that’s dockside,” he said.
L’Auberge opened in August 2005 with 745 hotel rooms, a golf course, and a casino surrounded by retail outlets. The gambling area was the “only single-deck riverboat in Louisiana. The 225-feet-by-330-feet gaming vessel will be one of the largest single-deck riverboat casinos in the United States,” according to a Pinnacle Entertainment news release from Dec. 2, 2004.
Building a casino-resort was viewed back then as a way to ensure the Lake Area would be a tourist destination.
“Overall, the numbers speak for themselves when you look at where we were in 1993 to now,” Roach said. “Gaming is a significant industry that includes Lake Charles, Kinder and Vinton. The entire region has become a destination for gaming. I don’t think anybody anticipated this kind of growth.”
When Ameristar Lake Charles, which is under construction, is completed, it is supposed to create 1,500 permanent jobs, and generate $10 million in annual tax revenues for local governments and $60 million in state taxes.
As proposed, the casino-resort will have 700 guest rooms, a golf course, tennis courts, a pool, a spa and entertainment facilities.
Ameristar Lake Charles is supposed to open in July 2014.