For the past 19 years, Mike and Nok Pervel have left their Mandeville home for the Mississippi Gulf Coast nearly every weekend, drawn by the allure of live music, entertainment, food and gambling at the casinos that are a relatively short and easy drive away.
The couple’s favorite spot is the Hollywood Casino and Resort in Bay St. Louis, where they’ve been regulars since the days when it was called Casino Magic. The casino resort’s employees, from bartenders to parking lot attendants and dealers, are virtually a second family. And other couples they’ve met standing in line or sitting side-by-side at the slot machines have become such a tight-knit group of friends that Pervel’s daughter-in-law dubbed them the “Hollywood Hustlers.”
But for all their attachment to the Hollywood and other Mississippi casinos, Mike Pervel said he would welcome the opportunity to play closer to home at the $250 million casino resort that’s been proposed in eastern St. Tammany Parish.
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“Let’s build in Slidell. That cuts 40 minutes off my drive,” said Pervel, who moved to St. Tammany Parish when he retired from a military career.
The possibility of keeping Louisiana gamblers home is exactly what casino developers planning to build near Slidell are counting on. Those gamblers counted for 3.3 million visits to Mississippi casinos in 2018.
Peninsula Pacific Entertainment, known as P2E, currently has one of Louisiana’s 15 gaming licenses, for the now-shuttered DiamondJacks in Bossier City. That riverboat, which the Los Angeles-based company bought with plans to relocate the license, was the lowest performing casino in that market, according to the Spectrum Gaming Group, which did a 2018 analysis for the state agency Louisiana Economic Development.
After talking with some St. Tammany Parish elected officials for months, P2E went public last week with its plans to build a casino and 250-room hotel on 100 acres of vacant land just off the Interstate 10 twin spans.
A casino on the north shore is hardly a new idea. That 2018 Spectrum analysis recommended moving two of the state’s licenses from the Shreveport/Bossier City market, which is now losing north Texas customers to tribal casinos in Oklahoma. The report identified the north shore as one of two areas that are underserved, with the Monroe/Tallulah area as the other.
P2E tried three years ago to move the license to Tangipahoa Parish, but a bill to put a referendum on the ballot in that parish died in the Legislature.
The north shore of Lake Pontchartrain is a choice location because of the money that Louisiana residents are now pouring into casinos on the Mississippi Coast just to the east, more than $380 million annually, according to the Spectrum analysis, which looked at the Mississippi Gaming Control Board’s estimate of 3.3 million visits in 2018 from Louisiana residents and average spending of $118 per visit.
“If Louisiana can repatriate half of that or 30% of that, it would be terrific,” said Matt Roob, senior vice president of analysis for Spectrum. “It creates jobs in Louisiana, tax dollars in Louisiana … it’s not how I slice the pie, but how do I make the pie bigger?”
Even so, casinos in Mississippi and Louisiana are likely to look askance at the prospect of a new competitor.
“When the proposition was on the table to put it in Tangipahoa Parish, New Orleans area casinos were not warm to that idea at all,” said Ronnie Jones, the former chairperson of the Louisiana Gaming Control Board. “I suspect they’re going to move pretty vigorously to keep the market to themselves.”
As for Mississippi casinos, “They don’t want (Louisiana) to siphon off some of their business … no one wants to lose any market share,” he said.
According to Jay Connaughton, a local spokesperson for the developers, that’s already in the offing. “We are confident our project, with a full offering of resort amenities and world class entertainment, will stop the flood of money flowing to Mississippi,” he said in an email. “That’s why the Mississippi Gaming Association is already calling Louisiana lobbyists.”
Steering a measure through the Louisiana Legislature that sets a fall special election for St. Tammany voters to decide whether to allow gambling is the first major hurdle. The St. Tammany Parish Council will meet at 6 p.m. Monday to vote on a resolution asking the legislative delegation to bring such a bill to the Legislature in Baton Rouge later in the spring.
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P2E is already meeting with local officials to generate support and has agreed to put money into noncasino projects designed to win support from parish residents: $30 million for a sports/family entertainment complex and $5 million toward a Slidell ring levee.
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The company also has agreed to share 5% of its revenues with local government, which the company projects will mean $10 million a year in revenue for local government when combined with the taxes the casino resort will generate.
“If you look at casino deals around the country, there’s always a lot of horse-trading. Sometimes that’s enough to leverage local support,” Jones said.
If voters agree to allow a casino in St. Tammany, the newcomer to the market will have to lure gamblers who are now loyal to Mississippi casinos. Players tend to go to locations that are most convenient, Roob said.
“There’s the wear and tear on your car, gas money, your time,” Mike Pervel agreed.
But Mississippi still has some advantages.
Casinos there pay a lower gaming tax rate. A casino in Bay St. Louis would pay a total of 12.5% in taxes and fees, which included state and county taxes, the Spectrum analysis said. By comparison, what it called a Louisiana model would pay 26%.
That gives the Mississippi casinos more money to incentivize gamblers with freebies for their repeat customers, from overnight lodging to meals and free play, said Jones, who called that a competitive advantage.
“Casinos have nailed the issue of loyalty to their brand,” Jones said. “Once they’ve identified a customer, they go after it again and again.”
If the closer-to-home casino materializes, Pervel says he’ll be considering the incentives as a factor.
“I would sign up for their players club card, see what the amenities are, what they offer you … who would have the better amenities,” he said.
Margaret Rennie, a Slidell resident who is also a loyal Hollywood customer, said she likes everything about the casino — except the drive.
“If a casino opened in the Slidell area, you betcha I would love to consider changing my allegiance. But the new casino would have to treat me as well as Hollywood — free gifts, meals, cruises, etc.,” Rennie said.