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Reopening of riverboat casino buoys locals' spirits

NEW ORLEANS—In a region where the gaming industry is being called on to keep the economy afloat, a floating casino that pays $5 million in taxes each month reopened Monday to hundreds of waiting gamblers.

Treasure Chest Casino, a three-story riverboat on the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain in suburban Kenner, was spared by Hurricane Katrina but was closed for six weeks because its employees had fled.

It's one of the largest casinos to reopen in the New Orleans area, as the gaming industry struggles to recover and governments hunger for the thousands of jobs and millions in tax revenue that casinos generate.

New Orleans' downtown Harrah's casino remains closed indefinitely. Another riverboat casino, Boomtown, reopened last week.

Employees and patrons of Treasure Chest, many of whom lost homes in the storm, said the casino's reopening buoyed their spirits.

"We were lost without this," said 72-year-old Nina Wales of Jefferson Parish, who was smoking a cigarette and playing a slot machine called Ca$h Convoy minutes after the casino opened.

Before the doors opened, more than 300 people were lined up down the dock. Unlike Harrah's in the tourist district, Treasure Chest is marketed almost exclusively to locals.

Cheryl Auzalone of Kenner showed up for the noon opening at 8 a.m. and sneaked in an hour later. She wasn't allowed in the gaming room, but she helped workers set up so that she could be first in line.

Auzalone, 51, who works for a real estate title company, took the day off to play penny slots. She brought $200 with her. She's gambled at the casino every Saturday since it opened in 1994, as well as once or twice during the week.

"I'm excited to be able to come back and have some entertainment," she said. "I play for hours and hours. Today I'm not leaving."

The casino attracts 5,000 gamblers a day, who wager about $9 million a month.

It employs more than 1,000 people, about 400 of whom were back to work Monday. All but 20 are accounted for, and are still getting paychecks while they repair homes or search for new housing.

"As of Friday there were 46 people on our MIA list," casino spokesman Rob Stillwell said. "We cut off their paychecks and heard from 26 of them."

Katrina's impact on the Gulf Coast gaming industry is broad.

In Mississippi, where gambling has grown into a strong segment of the state's $2 billion-a-year tourism industry, lawmakers passed a bill last week that would let the 13 casinos in the state's three Gulf Coast counties move ashore from barges in waterways. On Monday it was awaiting Gov. Haley Barbour's signature, which has been assured.

Coastal Mississippi casinos employed more than 17,000 people before Katrina hit, and an estimated 50,000 jobs total depend on the industry. The state is eager to get the industry restarted—and paying taxes. Along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the first casino isn't expected to reopen until Christmas.

In Louisiana, Mayor Ray Nagin has proposed creating a casino district in New Orleans, where Harrah's Entertainment Inc. holds a state-granted monopoly on land-based casinos.

On Monday, Nagin said the city's convention business wouldn't recover for at least a year and that more gambling would bring in new taxes. "The city will have a tough time without those revenue streams," he said.

The proposal has attracted little political support yet and has critics in the faith community.

"There's so much in our city: music, art, architecture," Roman Catholic Archbishop Alfred Hughes said. "I don't know why we need to appeal to the lesser instincts."

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(Latson reports for The Olympian in Olympia, Wash. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Mark Washburn of The Charlotte Observer and Tom Wilemon of The (Biloxi) Sun Herald contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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