Published: Saturday, November 19, 1994
Edition: THIRD
Page: A1
Byline: By FRANK DONZE Staff writer


There were jazz tunes, quips, speeches, a parade and, inevitably, one small foul-up Friday as Harrah's Jazz Co. began a $40 million renovation of the Municipal Auditorium, which it hopes to open as a temporary casino in late April.

The morning ceremony outside the city-owned auditorium's St. Ann Street entrance signaled the end of a long, star-crossed quest by one of the gambling industry's giants to establish a foothold in New Orleans.

But as jesters in brightly colored satin costumes waved huge wands, casino officials were able to joke about their struggle.

"The Guinness Book of World Records called me this morning. We made it. We're the project that has overcome more hurdles and more difficulties than any other project in the history of the world," said lawyer Wendell Gauthier, leader of the casino's nine local investors, known as the Jazzville group.

Gambling at the auditorium is expected to end by May 1996, when Harrah's plans to open the world's largest casino on the Rivergate site at the foot of Canal Street.

Construction crews will work around the clock to meet the deadlines.

The start of work on the auditorium comes 29 months after Gov. Edwards signed the state casino act into law and more than 15 months after state regulators chose a partnership of Harrah's Casino Hotels and Jazzville to operate the casino. Since then, a group led by resort developer Christopher Hemmeter was added to the development team.

The cost of the project has doubled to $815 million as a result of countless delays caused by court challenges, political differences between state and city officials, bureaucratic snafus and squabbling among the partners.

But there were no angry words Friday.

Mayor Marc Morial opened his remarks with a paraphrase of one of the signature songs of Louis Armstrong, the city's native son who gave his name to the park next to the auditorium. "Hello, Dolly. It's so swell, Dolly," Morial half-sang, half-spoke.

Standing with Morial, Gauthier signed a giant, symbolic $29 million check payable to the city. The money, guaranteed through Harrah's leases for the auditorium and the Rivergate and a promise to reimburse the city for casino-related expenses, will begin arriving next week and will all be paid by early December.

Kicking off with a one-float parade followed by about 100 second-lining Harrah's workers, the brief program ran smoothly under the guidance of master of ceremonies Ron Lenczycki, president of Harrah's Casino New Orleans.

But as he neared the end of the list of speakers, Lenczycki inadvertently skipped over City Councilman Troy Carter, who represents the French Quarter and the temporary casino site, before introducing Morial.

A smiling Morial quickly healed the breach in protocol by asking Carter to speak first.

Copyright The Times-Picayune Publishing Corp.