10/12/2001 12:00AM

Fair Grounds battling for business


ELMONT, N.Y. - Few cities in America suffered as much economically in the wake of the attacks on New York and Washington as New Orleans, where tourism is so important. Hotels reported room occupancy rates of 5 and 10 percent, and this trend in turn played havoc with the French Quarter's great restaurants.

"We first saw erosion of business in this area two years ago," said Bryan Krantz, president of Fair Grounds. "Last spring, about the time we finished our race meeting, there was a notable decline, and we experienced double-digit drops in our parimutuel revenue.

"A new form of competition presented itself. It was video poker machines in truck stops. The truck stops became little casinos, and they impacted us as much as 40 percent. The worst scenario would have been if we had lost the Super Bowl. It was very close to going to another city when the National Football League reached an agreement with the automobile dealers to switch convention dates and reservations. The Super Bowl is very important to the Fair Grounds. It helps our business that whole week."

Krantz reports that business in New Orleans is slowly returning and there is some action at the 11 offtrack betting establishments operated by the Fair Grounds in southeastern Louisiana. These OTB facilities, no more than 55 miles from the Fair Grounds, vary in size and are unusual with regard to some of the services offered.

The Fair Grounds, whose race meeting opens Nov. 22, is in its first year conducting account betting and has some 3,000 accounts. The track reached an agreement with the Cox Cable System that puts the Fair Grounds signal into 500,000 homes in the New Orleans area. Another agreement has just been concluded that will add an additional 400,000 homes to the mix. Account members can visit an OTB establishment and use an ATM unit to deal directly with their banks, either adding to or withdrawing from their bank acccounts.

The Fair Grounds' signal, which goes to some 400 outlets in North America and the Carribean, was sent to England last season, and another arrangement is in place for the season just ahead, expanding on the progress made.

"Racing stood still in America for 100 years," Krantz said. "Now we are falling over ourselves in an effort to catch up."