Casino executives promise jobs, tourists and revenues for South Florida
Nov 16, 2011 - South Florida Sun-Sentinel
November 16, 2011
TALLAHASSEE Executives from some of the world’s biggest gambling companies swept into Tallahassee Wednesday to begin their attempt to persuade Florida’s anti-gambling Legislature to allow luxury gambling resorts a la Las Vegas in South Florida.
The pitches came with major promises.
From Colin Au, president of Malaysian company Genting: 100,000 new jobs and the start of Genting-subsidized direct flights from several major Asian cities to Miami. He predicted that three resorts would generate $1.7 billion in taxes and lower unemployment payments for the state and bring 4 million to 6 million new visitors to South Florida. He promised that his company’s property, World Resorts Miami, would sell 100,000 tickets to Walt Disney World.
From Las Vegas Sands vice president Andy Abboud: Jobs — plus a possible expansion into Florida of his company’s charities, which he said have given millions to medical research and drug clinics, plus support for cultural causes.
And Wynn Resorts lobbyist Michael Britt noted that his company’s top recent legislative priority in Nevada has been education, with board director Elaine Wynn serving as the national chairwoman of Communities in Schools.
But their major message was, besides new jobs, destination resorts would bring more tourists and create more business for the state’s existing attractions, like Walt Disney World, as well as gambling facilities run by pari-mutuels and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
“We’re spreading the cake all over the place,” Au said in his heavily accented English. “They’re going to go to Orlando, they’re going to visit Disney Land,” clearly meaning Disney World.
At another point, referring to contentions that his resort would put local firms out of business, Au raised eyebrows with his blunt characterization: “That’s bull—- ,” he said. “It does not take people’s lunch. It creates lunch, dinner plus breakfast for everyone.”
Abboud added: “We should not harm the existing [gambling] industry. We should not harm other businesses.”
Genting has already announced plans to build a $3.8 billion resort — and the world’s largest casino — on Miami bayfront property now occupied by The Miami Herald building. Both Sands and Wynn are looking at a number of properties in both Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
Still, the bill faces an uphill battle in a Legislature that has been squeamish about passing anything that could be billed as an expansion of gambling, especially huge full-service casinos that would be a first in Florida.
Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, are sponsoring legislation to authorize up to three destination resorts — each costing a minimum of $2 billion — in South Florida. But lawmakers were clearly skeptical about their effect on existing businesses and even whether the South Florida market is big enough to support three mega resorts.
“I grew up in Miami-Dade, I live in Broward,” said Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston. “I find that extremely hard to get my hands around.”
An analysis for Genting by Spectrum Gaming Group, an independent gambling research firm, concluded that three destination resorts would generate gross gambling revenues of anywhere from $4.3 billion to $6 billion per year.
But that broad range, and lower estimates from other gambling industry research groups, have some lawmakers and even gambling companies questioning whether the numbers are realistic.
“We think that there is a very real concern about potential market saturation in this state,” Abboud told lawmakers. “We have always said it should be a cautious, go-slow approach.”
Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who has generally opposed gambling bills, said he was part of the “go slow” party, and Committee Chairman Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, admitted he didn’t see the “need to hurry up and rush.”
Jones drafted legislation last spring that would have opened the state to five destination resorts. Since his bill did not require a $2-billion investment, it could have allowed smaller venues to open in areas like Fort Myers or Daytona Beach that have expressed interest in building a casino.
Jones said that the committee will hold another three-hour workshop in December, mostly to hear from pari-mutuel facilities that operate five slot-machine “racinos” in South Florida and want to add three more.
Donn Mitchell, chief administrative officer for Isle of Capri Casino & Racing in Pompano Beach, told the committee that he didn’t necessarily oppose Vegas-style resorts. But he said that, to survive, his firm and other pari-mutuels needed the same tax rate as the casinos and perhaps blackjack and other card games as well.
Currently, pari-mutuels pay a 35-percent tax on their slot machine earnings and are limited to poker rooms. The new casinos would be able to offer all games — including blackjack, roulette and craps — and pay a 10-percent tax.
Without parity, Mitchell said, “Frankly, [the bill] challenges our very existence in the future.”
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