News | Fertitta’s Golden Nugget off to a fast start in Lake Charles
December 08, 2014
By Erin Mulvaney | Houston Chronicle
LAKE CHARLES, La. - They come in chartered buses and suburban sedans from Houston, Galveston and Beaumont, from San Antonio and Austin. By the hundreds of thousands each year, they crest the Calcasieu River Bridge and enter a sparkling world where they can roll dice, feed slot machines and take a shot at fortune in ways that are illegal back home.
Over the last two decades, gamblers from Texas have helped transform this blue-collar petrochemical town in southwestern Louisiana into a vibrant tourist destination anchored by waterfront casinos. What it lacks in Vegas pizazz, it makes up for in proximity. It's barely a three-hour drive from the Houston area.
"We love to gamble," said one of those visitors, TC Berry of Brookshire, who spent the weekend at the L'Auberge Casino Resort in Lake Charles.
On Monday, the playground got bigger and more opulent. Houston billionaire Tilman Fertitta and a host of state and local officials officially cut the ribbon on the newest and perhaps glitziest casino there to date: the Golden Nugget.
As smiling showgirls festooned in yellow feathers preened with ceremonial scissors, Mayor Randy Roach drew cheers from the crowd when he began the festivities by welcoming his "friends across the river."
Chuck Kleckley, speaker of the Louisiana House, recalled his reaction when Fertitta bought the property for the Golden Nugget 16 months ago and presented his vision.
"I was sold," he said.
And Ronnie Jones, chairman of the Louisiana Gaming Control Board, said the influx of construction and casino jobs has been an economic boon.
"Lake Charles has already hit the jackpot," he said.
Five Nugget casinos
The $700 million Lake Charles project is Fertitta's fifth casino since he took over Golden Nugget casino and hotel properties in Las Vegas and Laughlin, Nev., nine years ago. He later bought and rebranded a Trump facility in Atlantic City, N.J., and he recently opened a casino in Biloxi, Miss. He operates them through Golden Nugget Casinos, a division of his privately run company.
His newest property joins L'Auberge and Isle of Capri in Lake Charles. Less than 30 miles in either direction, gamblers can also visit the Coushatta Casino Resort in Kinder and the Delta Downs racetrack in Vinton. Together, they draw millions of visitors each year.
Fertitta, whose parents hail from Louisiana, called the Lake Charles property "the most unique gaming opportunity in America." When it came available, he said, he flew to Vegas and offered a $50 million nonrefundable deposit to then-owner Ameristar to get it.
"I look at Louisiana and Texas almost as one," he said. "You don't notice when you cross the line and people are the same. It's in the South, everyone's nice."
And for opening night, his 740-room hotel was booked.
Chad Beynon, a gaming analyst for Macquarie Securities, called the Lake Charles market healthy in terms of current casino visitors but said he was less convinced more outlets were needed. He said Pinnacle Entertainment, which owns L'Auberge, had the opportunity to build on the Golden Nugget location a few years ago but decided against it.
Yet Beynon said there still appears to be demand in the market.
The L'Auberge Casino Resort opened in 2005 and Pinnacle has invested $100 million in the last three years alone, said Keith Henson, senior vice president and general manager. The company remodeled its 1,000-room hotel and added retail and restaurants.
"We are a total-destination resort and we really put Lake Charles on the map," Henson said.
The Isle of Capri and L'Auberge report that 77 percent of their 4.3 million customers come from either 150 miles away or from another state, according to the Louisiana Gaming Control Board.
Fertitta and the L'Auberge operators say that while they are competitors, their proximity to one another will help both businesses. A boardwalk and walkway connecting the two casinos are under construction.
Beynon agreed that, as in Las Vegas, having a cluster of casinos could benefit all parties.
Wade Duty, executive director of the Louisiana Casino Association, said time will tell.
"You'll never know how much it will grow the market and how much it will cannabilize the market," he said. "People love to speculate, but you won't know the true details for at least a year."
Duty said Las Vegas has worked for more than a decade to add shows and food options in addition to gaming, giving it further advantage over Louisiana. He sees Fertitta's entry as an effort to bring big-city glamour.
"What you will see with the Golden Nugget is the largest effort to date to bring that type of packaging to this state," he said, noting the high-end dining options, traditional casino-style buffet and large retail space. "They definitely spared no expense and aimed high for what they want to accomplish."
Louisiana now has 16 authorized casinos and four horse racing tracks with casino games. Duty said the Harrah's in New Orleans is the only casino not required to be on an approved body of water - an exception to the 1992 legislation that allowed riverboat casinos and led in short order to their opening on designated waterways, including the Calcasieu River, which runs through Lake Charles.
Because of that law, the L'Auberge and Golden Nugget each maintain a steering wheel and propellers even though neither building can float. The Isle of Capri is the old-style moored riverboat that connects to a hotel.
While the official grand opening was set for Monday, Golden Nugget officials were ready to lift the ropes by 9 p.m. Sunday and let a crowd of several hundred rush in to play the 70 table games and 1,600 slot machines.
"I've been excited about this place opening ever since I first saw it announced on TV," said Margo Linzer of Sugar Land, who drove in for the opening. "I'm probably not going home tonight."
On Monday, Charles Butcher of Katy was sporting a J.J. Watt Texans jersey and up some $600 up on the slots by 1 p.m. That was good enough to make him a fan of the Golden Nugget.
"The fact that I'm winning I'll give it a thumbs up," Butcher said. "My verdict is out because I always win at the Isle, but I'm winning right now here."
Rhonda Mikeska of Houston and her husband visit Lake Charles as often as possible, she said. Mikeska was playing her favorite game, three-card poker, in the casino floor. The couple play regularly at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas and just got back from the casino in Biloxi. In Louisiana, they've typically visited Coushatta or Isle of Capri.
"But I'll be here all the time now," she said. "This is my new place."