Culture / Travel

A Houston Billionaire’s Unlikely Casino Paradise

Greetings From Lake Charles

BY // 09.10.15

I was skeptical at best when two pals from the art world suggested a Thelma and Louise-style getaway to Lake Charles, Louisiana. Seriously?

Heretofore, the city was on my radar as only a pass-through on the way to the seductive pleasures of New Orleans or the beachy charms of Florida’s Emerald Coast. Nonetheless, I acquiesced, and a road trip was planned. The itinerary was simple and direct: Head straight east on 1-10 for two hours and a few minutes, and voilà, we would arrive at our destination: the Golden Nugget in Lake Charles, a newly minted resort of gambling, gaming, and dining curated and created by Houston billionaire Tilman Fertitta‘s Fertitta Entertainment, Inc.

Missing the turnoff, we easily doubled back and soon crossed a mammoth bridge that led to a crescent of manicured green lawn, with the welcoming vista of a golf course in sight, joined by fountains and lush marshland. I thought of John Alexander, the Beaumont-raised painter who once confessed that all of his landscapes were evocations of growing up in the coastal wetlands of east Texas and Louisiana. The natural scenery surrounding the Golden Nugget was a surprise — and actually disarming.

Pulling up in the grand entry of the hotel was unexpected, too: A line of crisp valets and bellmen jumped to attention and ferried our group into what would be our home for the next two nights and three days.

I haven’t been to Las Vegas in years, but despite not being a gambler, I am always enthralled by its sense of ersatz theater and fantasy. And just like its counterpart, the Golden Nugget lived up to that, a Vegas-level experience spun around, in this case, a revitalizing town best known for industry. (Lake Charles has a soft spot in my heart, because I grew up in Pittsburgh, another metropolis erected on the tangibles of honest labor and commerce.) So I saw in this enterprise an optimistic recasting of a blue-collar town into a playground set upon a landscape of reclaimed, straightforward beauty.

There is also a feel-good economic story here: The $700-million hotel and casino that is the Golden Nugget employs a cast of 2,000, draws an incredible 353,000 visitors monthly and has increased the economic impact in Lake Charles and surrounding environs by amping up gaming revenues — as cited by the Louisiana Gaming Control Board — by 36 percent since the first dice rolled in December 2014.

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