SPECIAL REPORT: The future of the Isle of Capri

Updated: Jan. 28, 2020 at 9:14 AM CST
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LAKE CHARLES, La. (KPLC) - In July 1996, Southwest Louisiana opened its first riverboat casino, and for more than 20 years the Isle of Capri has welcomed residents, providing a place for gaming.

For several years, the Isle of Capri in Westlake was looking for ways to expand and attract more people to the area. Their chance came in 2018 after the Louisiana Legislature approved a bill allowing riverboat or water-based casinos to move inland.

“It was very exciting but very stressful being that we were the first ones to appear before the board,” Vice President and General Manager of the Isle of Capri, Jeff Favre said.

Outside of the special permission granted to Harrah’s Casino to gamble on state land, in December 2019, the Isle of Capri became the first riverboat in the state to gain approval from the Louisiana Gaming Control Board to move inland. However, the law has several stipulations.

“They could only go within 1,200 feet of where they were docked," Louisiana Gaming Control Board member Julie Berry said. “The second part of the law is that they have increased the number of devices that they could have on the floor.”

Eldorado Resorts, the owner of the Isle of Capri, has committed more than $100 million to the project. Jeff Favre says the project will make the casino more appealing to SWLA residents and tourists.

“We are thinking a little over twelve-hundred slots and approximately forty-five table games," Favre said. "So there will be an increase in gaming positions.”

The new facility will also add approximately seven new restaurants and a food court to the property along with welcoming a host of new workers.

Favre does not expect business to be interrupted as the new facility will be built as an extension to the current property.

“Both existing hotels will remain in place, however, they will be renovated and refreshed," Favre said. "At some point, the riverboat that we are sitting on today will go away. You know with all square footage I think it’s about one-hundred-ten-thousand square feet.”

With an upgraded casino comes an influx of revenue. Currently, that revenue is divided among cities in Calcasieu Parish through a gaming pool. Westlake Mayor Bob Hardy says Sulphur gets about $800,000, Lake Charles gets about $12 million and Westlake gets about $400,000 annually. But Hardy hopes that Westlake’s luck will soon change.

“We are going to be able to get half of the sales tax, half of the property, and all this other stuff, so we are going to increase," Hardy said. "Estimating I think we are going to come up somewhere between a million and a million four.”

Hardy says the city has already developed a tentative plan to disperse potential funds generated from the casino. One-third would be used to pay debt, one-third would be used for capital funds that require a one time fee, and one-third would be put in an operational reserve fund.

“I had to put a twenty-million property tax against the people of Westlake for fire and police," Hardy said. "If this happens and we can generate enough revenue on the front end, we are going to reduce those taxes back to help the people of Westlake.”

However, they will not be the only ones benefiting from this project. R.B. Smith, with the Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance, says this is going to help the whole parish.

“We know that our casinos as a group bring in over four million visitors per year into SWLA," Smith said. "We think that with the upgrade to the Isle of Capri that they are going to be able to bring in new customers that have not been here before.”

With more visitors to our casinos, it will, in turn, provide more revenue locally.

“They may go to retail shops in local areas, so yes we think we will see an increase in some of that activity as well,” Smith said.

Currently, the casino is awaiting approval from Westlake and Calcasieu Parish for their building permits. Favre says they plan to break ground immediately after approval. They have already hired two Louisiana based construction companies and say they are excited to move forward with the project.

“It’s going to be a high-quality asset that we are certainly going to be able to be proud of and will certainly have a positive impact on the community, SWLA, and the state," Favre said.

The Louisiana Gaming Control Board says a handful of water-based casinos have approached the committee about moving inland and at least two are in the early stages of planning.

“I think the other boats are going to follow, it may not be all of them and it may not be real soon but it’s definitely going to help the entire state,” Berry said.

Jeff Favre says construction is expected to be completed in April or May of 2021, weather permitting. He also says there is a possibility that the casino may be re-branded after construction is completed.

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