Fate of Proposed Louisiana Tracks Hinges on Study

by Hector San Miguel

The Louisiana Racing Commission will not issue any more licenses for new racetracks until it completes an economic study requested by the state legislature. The request came after three different developers expressed interest in building racetracks complete with slot machines.

Charles Gardiner III, the commission's executive director, said the study would be given to the legislature next year before its regular session. No decision was made on who will do the study, or how much it will cost.

Said State Rep. Ronnie Johns, who co-authored the House resolution: "I think we have accomplished what we set out to do, and that was to put a hold on these applications for the time being. If something needs to be done legislatively next session, we will definitely take a look at doing that."

Johns said he would ask the state Division of Administration about providing money for the study. "It's something that needs to be funded," he said. "While we don't want to waste a whole lot of money, we want to make absolutely sure that we are not adversely affecting that industry by adding new racetracks."

The racing commission has received three requests to build tracks in Johnson Bayou, Greenwood, and Crowley.

Shawn Scott, the former owner of Delta Downs near Vinton, wants to build a track and slots parlor in Cameron Parish near Johnson Bayou. The proposed track would be closer to the Texas border than Delta Downs in Calcasieu Parish.

Former Star Riverboat Casino owner Louie Roussel III wants to put a track and slots parlor in Greenwood in Caddo Parish. It would be located off Interstate 20 about 15 miles west of the Shreveport-Bossier City riverboat casinos and Louisiana Downs.

The House resolution urges the racing commission "to study the feasibility, practicality, and impact of licensing additional racing facilities to conduct live horse racing within the boundaries of the state, specifically considering the potential legal and economic ratifications of such additions."

It asks the commission to "carefully consider the economic viability of any additional racing facility in light of the marked expansion of gaming activities in the state and neighboring states in the last several years."

Once the feasibility study is completed, the commission is requested to report its findings and recommendations to several legislative committees prior to the beginning of the regular legislative session next year. Johns said the study's aim is to see if additional racetracks would impact existing facilities.

For all three of the proposed tracks to have slot machines, they would have to be amended into the existing law. That would take an act of the legislature.

Johns said he wouldn't be opposed to Fair Grounds in New Orleans having slot machines because the track has been in operation for some time. Fair Grounds is expected to seek legislation next year for a slots parlor.

In another action, the commission withheld approval of the sale of Evangeline Downs near Lafayette because the sale hasn't closed. Peninsula Gaming Partners, which owns half of Evangeline Downs, reached an agreement in July with William Trotter to purchase his half interest in the track and become sole owner.

Attorneys representing Peninsula Gaming said the sale is expected to close by the end of August. Peninsula officials are expected to come before the commission in September.

Evangeline Downs has options to purchase land in Opelousas for a racetrack and slot machine facility. Since the rejection of video poker by Lafayette Parish voters in 1996, track owners have sought to relocate to St. Landry Parish.

The track has been without video poker revenue since July 1, 1999. It's estimated that slot machine profits would enable the track to increase daily average purses by more than $200,000 per day.