By Katherine Hart, Mid-City Messenger
The Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots sports betting plans received the unanimous approval of the City Planning Commission at their meeting this week.
While the fairgrounds have allowed bets on horse racing for 150 years, its guests cannot place bets on games. A 2005 city ordinance allowing a building to house 700 slot machines restricts betting at the track under caveat 3, stating “No wagering may be placed on televised sporting events other than horse racing.”
The ordinance was enacted before more than three-quarters of New Orleans voters pressed “yes” in a November 2020 ballot measure to make Orleans one of 55 Louisiana communities that sanction sports betting.
Churchill Downs, the exhibition center owner, is now asking the city to amend the 2005 ordinance to allow it to add sports betting to its offering.
The Fair Grounds plans include a 1,500 square foot lounge dedicated to betting on the outcome of games. Part of the main building will be converted for the lounge. Players can also use one of three betting kiosks planned for the slots area.
sign of support
This proposal was accepted by CPC staff, who stated in their report: “There is no significant difference in terms of land use impact between the horse racing currently permitted at the facility and the proposed sports betting.”
No objections were raised at the CPC hearing. Of the approximately 25 people who commented on the hearing, 23 were employees of the exhibition center and were not immediate neighbors. Employees said the fairgrounds are community-focused and offer competitive wages and benefits.
Two neighborhood associations, the Fairgrounds Neighborhood Association and the DeSaix Area Neighborhood Association, submitted letters of support to the CPC.
The Faubourg St. John Neighborhood Association did not, but the association’s president, Beaux Jones, said in a Nov. 4 message to FSJNA members that the board had voted to support Churchill Downs’ motion. Doug Shipley, president of Churchill Downs Louisiana Horseracing Co., met with the board on Nov. 2, records show.
As early as 2005, the Faubourg St. John and DeSaix associations were involved in an intensive public process regarding the approval of slot machines on the exhibition grounds. The result of this process and public outcry over Churchill Downs’ slot machine initiative was the 2005 regulation containing 21 provisions to mitigate the potential negative effects of adding a casino to the route.
“This process was not inclusive”
Another group involved in negotiating slots was the Fairgrounds Triangle Neighborhood Association. This group is separate from the newer Fairgrounds Neighborhood Association, which also covers the Fairgrounds Triangle area. The Fairgrounds Neighborhood Association was formed in 2018, according to the Secretary of State’s records.
After the CPC approved the sports betting proposal Tuesday (Jan. 25), Mid-City Messenger reached out to Morgan Clevenger, the FTNA President, for comment. Clevenger said she wasn’t aware of the vote or that the hearing was scheduled.
“We need everyone at the table — and that process wasn’t inclusive,” Clevenger said. “It’s very discouraging. We are the ones who have worked so hard to make this neighborhood a better place and the exhibition center benefits from that too.”
Minutes from a Neighborhood Participation Project meeting held on Zoom in November 2021 show that Clevenger attended the meeting, but stated that neither she nor FTNA received notification of the meeting. The Churchill Downs representative replied that they had used a contact list provided by the Town Planning Commission.
This list in the CPC records does not include Clevenger, who lives three blocks from the fairgrounds. The Fairgrounds Triangle Neighborhood Association is not among the three neighborhood groups contacted about the NPP meeting.
Clevenger also told Mid-City Messenger that neither she nor her neighbors had seen the sign that must be placed on a property to request a zoning change. Town records generally show a photograph of this sign, but it is absent from the records for the Churchill Downs conditional use application.
As part of the ordinance allowing slots at the racetrack, the fairgrounds are required to hire off-duty New Orleans police units to patrol the surrounding neighborhood 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Members of the FTNA have been particularly vocal in expressing their dissatisfaction with the patrol.
“We’ve been saying for years the patrol isn’t there,” Clevenger said. “We can’t see them.”
A November Report by Fox 8 investigative reporter Lee Zurik confirms these claims. Zurik tracked the activities of an officer assigned to patrol the fairgrounds and found he was off-duty.
In a follow-up segment Clevenger and two of her neighbors, who aired in December, told Zurik they felt the fairgrounds should be held accountable for failing to comply with the 2005 ordinance, even if it means closing casino operations.
Responding to three questions about the patrol at the NPP meeting, Churchill Downs officials said they were “unable to deal with the NOPD investigation. Under Regulation 22.053, the NOPD rank officer is tasked with coordinating and supervising NOPD patrols.”
Regulation 22.053 is the 2005 regulation that allows slots to operate. The caveat that creates the police detail reads: “The applicant (Churchill Downs) is required to hire a NOPD rank officer to coordinate and oversee enhanced police patrol at the fairgrounds.”
Problems with the patrol have prompted the Fairgrounds Triangle group to oppose changing the ordinance to allow sports betting, saying Churchill Downs must first meet all of its conditions.
“Our stance was – and we hoped everyone’s stance would be – that sports betting should not be allowed until the fairgrounds have met all of their regulations,” Clevenger said. “It’s not so much about the sports betting piece as it is about how they operate in the community and how they comply with the laws that are already on the books.”
The sports betting proposal next goes to City Council for hearing and voting.
Katherine Hart is the Editor-in-Chief of NOLA Messenger. She can be reached at [email protected].