Volusia County leaders keeping eye on Miami casino push

“A casino giant’s ambitious and unprecedented plan for a casino-hotel-condo-restaurant-shopping resort on Biscayne Bay has lawmakers across the state pondering whether Florida should take a gamble on new gambling in an economy that keeps dealing bad hands.”

Andrew Gant

Daytona Beach News Journal

September 22nd, 2011

The ante’s on the table in Miami, and it’s a big one: $3 billion.

A casino giant’s ambitious and unprecedented plan for a casino-hotel-condo-restaurant-shopping resort on Biscayne Bay has lawmakers across the state pondering whether Florida should take a gamble on new gambling in an economy that keeps dealing bad hands.

It’s even got Volusia County trying to peek at the cards.

“We need to know what’s going on, who’s pushing it, and what’s the likelihood of it going forward,” County Councilman Josh Wagner said of the proposed legislation that could open South Florida to the type of sprawling casino palace mentioned above.

“And if we wanted to be involved,” Wagner added, “what would we need to do?”

At Wagner’s request, Volusia’s lobbyists will be monitoring the status of the bill, which appears to be on a fast track. Last week, Senate President Mike Haridopolos removed an outspoken casino opponent from the committee that will get first crack at the proposal, and then added its sponsor, Fort Lauderdale Republican Ellyn Bogdanoff, as a replacement.

In a state where voters have repeatedly rejected casinos at the ballot, the stakes have been raised.

Last week, the Malaysian-based Genting Group unveiled plans for “Resorts World Miami,” a 30-acre project that would include two condominiums, four hotels, luxury retailers, restaurants, bars — and a 650,000-square-foot casino on the bay.

Today, most of the casinos in Florida belong to the Seminole tribe. A few horse and dog tracks (or “racinos”) have slot machines on site in South Florida, and of the 27 racetracks and jai alai frontons across the state, 23 have poker rooms, including Daytona Beach. Cruise ships based in Florida routinely head offshore to host casino games outside state waters.

The slots alone, while limited, are a significant moneymaker for the tribe and the state. In the last year, the machines brought in almost $360 million in revenue — $125 million of which went to the state.

Still, no one has seen anything close to a Resorts World.

“God knows the price tag of what they want to build down there,” said Dan Francati, general manager of the Daytona Beach Kennel Club & Poker Room. “The ‘destination casino,’ it may work for Miami. I don’t think it works for the rest of the state.”

A key issue in Florida’s casino future lies in the courts. A constitutional amendment approved in 2004 allowed slot machines only at certain tracks and jai alai venues in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. But an excluded race track in Hialeah (in Miami-Dade County) is arguing in the 1st District Court of Appeals that state lawmakers should have the power to allow casinos anywhere they see fit. That argument is likely to end up in the state Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the forthcoming bill, sponsored by Bogdanoff and, in the House, by Miami Republican Erik Fresen, would offer three new casino licenses in South Florida — one likely for Resorts World, two more for several other companies that have been lobbying Tallahassee.

In Volusia, it came up during a routine discussion of the County Council’s legislative agenda, which is a list of state issues the county wants its lobbyists to support, oppose or simply monitor. County staff had already proposed monitoring legislation on Internet cafes (many of which offer slot-like computer games) when Wagner brought up casinos.

“If there’s any year that something like this has a possibility of passing, it’s this year,” he said of the legislation, proposed at a time when Florida unemployment is well above the national average. “It’s absolutely lightning in a bottle.”

The American Gaming Association says 2,533 people are employed at four of Florida’s five “racinos.” Genting has estimated its project would create 15,000 construction jobs and 30,000 permanent ones, including 5,000 at the casino alone, according to the Miami Herald.

State Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach, said he expects the bill will pass. But he wasn’t sure it meant similar projects will start appearing up and down the state.

“Do I see it as an opening? I would say so,” he said. “But I don’t see the support in Volusia County. There would probably be some support, but I don’t think, overwhelmingly, the local governments or communities would.”

Jim Chisholm, the city manager in Daytona Beach, isn’t betting on any action.

“A casino is not going to come to Daytona Beach because the city manager or anybody wants it to,” Chisholm said. “It’s all outside interests. The people who are involved in the casino industry will be the ones who decide where it goes; it’s not going to be us. All we’re trying to do is monitor who’s doing what so we know who the players are and have some idea of what’s going to happen.

“I wish I had that much money,” he added, “to be able to influence anything.”

Chisholm pointed to Jacksonville as a more likely contender for a casino project. And he pointed out Orlando’s considerable influence in Tallahassee would likely affect any effort to bring one to Volusia County. At the Daytona dog track, Francati said you might as well place a 50-mile (or so) dome around Disney.

Francati wouldn’t mind seeing a smaller-scale casino permitted and built in Volusia, assuming it’s connected to the track — which, he pointed out, has a field of cows as neighbors today.

“We would be fine with a regional casino that’s tied to the racetracks that have been here for 60 years,” he said. “We’re already in this business . . . (But) destination casinos do not belong throughout the state of Florida.”

The proposed legislation has triggered a relaunch of No Casinos, an Orlando-based political action committee that raised $1.5 million in 1994 successfully fighting a gambling amendment. The group’s president is John Sowinski, who led the pushback 17 years ago and said this week that the Genting plan wasn’t surprising.

“Whenever there’s a difficult or soft economy,” he said, “gambling interests come out to promote themselves.”

Sowinski’s argument rests on the ancillary costs of gambling — it’s a drain on surrounding businesses, he argues, and causes crime to spike. The economic and public-safety costs, in his view, outweigh any gains in jobs and tax revenue. And he believes opening one part of Florida to a casino opens the rest of the state to others.

“If it happens with Genting in Miami now . . . it’s only a matter of time before Palm Beach Kennel Club comes to the Legislature and says, ‘Gosh, we can’t compete (without a casino),’ ” he said. “Then, when they do it, Fort Pierce Jai-Alai, and your kennel club there . . . it just never stops until somebody draws the line. That’s where we see ourselves today.”

International Speedway Corp. is opening a casino early next year at its track in Kansas, but local ISC officials have said they have no similar plans or interest in Daytona Beach.

The County Council is generally lukewarm to the idea. County Chair Frank Bruno, who hails from New Jersey, said he’s seen gambling bring the opposite of growth.

“The thought is, why should our people be going to places like Biloxi and Gulfport and Las Vegas or even Atlantic City?” he said. “But let me tell you, (in Atlantic City) that whole area is like an oasis in the middle of the slums. It was not the catalyst to clean up the area around it.”

“I’m receptive to growth and boosting the economy,” At-Large Councilwoman Joyce Cusack said, “but I’m not really down with big gambling . . . I’d like to see Volusia County maintain its image of being more family-oriented.”

“I’m kind of in a flux about casinos,” Councilwoman Joie Alexander said. “Some of the communities just suffer terribly. I feel like sometimes the social ills that are created by having a casino in your community would outweigh the advantages.”

That leaves Wagner, who occasionally goes to Tampa with friends to play blackjack or craps.

“If it comes back up for destination casinos, and they’re going to allow them, we can’t be in a position where we’re not looking for it,” he said. “That would have a very drastic impact on our tourism economy. We don’t want to be in a position where we’re not actively involved in that conversation.”