Forum held to discuss destination casinos

Pros, cons of casinos brought to light

By Christina Vazquez - Reporter

MIAMI - For the first time since the idea of destination casino resorts has been presented to the South Florida community, business leaders had a chance Monday to discuss the various issues surrounding the debate.

The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce hosted the forum at Jungle Island on Monday morning.

According to a news release, the goal was to "bring together key individuals and representatives from both sides of the issue who will provide insight on how destination gaming may transform South Florida's economic and business landscape."

However, five of the seven panelists were proponents of destination casino resorts. The event felt more like a platform for those parties to talk about what they see as the merits of bringing mega-casinos to South Florida.

Those panelists included the lawmakers who drafted a bill that would allow for destination casino resorts; representatives from the two companies who plan to seek a gaming license, which are Las Vegas Sands and the Genting Group out of Malaysia; and the man Genting hired to conduct an economic impact study.

The lone voice of opposition was Richard Turner of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. He said that whether the economy is good or bad, people have limited discretionary dollars, and so he fears mega-casinos will capture money that would have been spent on local businesses.

"Supporters seem to be in a hurry," he said. "Why the rush?"

He argued that by their nature, destination casinos will cannibalize area businesses.

Sen. Ellyn Bogdaoff fired back instantly, telling the members of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce that it "blows her mind" that an association representing businesses would argue that competition is a bad thing. She said we are a free market economy, at which point attendees clapped emphatically.

She certainly used the occasion to articulate what appeared to be a new strategy, which was to paint critics of destination casino resorts as "anti-business."

Bogdanoff and Rep. Erik Fresen also side-stepped concerns related to crime and personal bankruptcy.

The other panelist was Isadore Havenick, of Magic City Casino, a pari-mutuel with one chief concern: parity. Right now, the bill put forth by Bogdanoff and Fresen would let destination casino resorts secure a 10 percent tax rate, while pari-mutuels would stay saddled at 35 percent.

They told Havenick not to worry, that the issue of parity would be discussed when lawmakers debate this bill in January.

When Local 10's Christina Vazquez said to Havenick, "It sounds like their answer is, 'Just trust us,'" Havenick replied that with his family business on the line, while he has much respect for them, he can't trust them until, "I see it in writing."

Genting is the only company that's already invested cash on Miami real estate, having spent close to $500 million downtown purchasing the Miami Herald site and the nearby Omni Center.

There, the worry centers on traffic and infrastructure, and for the first time Genting delivered specifics on what the company is thinking about doing to alleviate those concerns.

Genting spokeswoman Jessica Hoppe said the company understood it has both a "responsibility" and "duty" to plan for the impact its project may have in that area.

The irony of this discussion was that the forum start time was delayed due to traffic congestion on the MacArthur Causeway. Some attendees said it took them two hours to navigate through downtown.

Hoppe said they have hired a firm to figure out options, which include building a three- to four-story parking garage underground and the possible "realignment of (Interstate) 395."

The other area some attendees said they wanted to hear more about is where exactly the revenue generated from the destination casinos would go.

Right now, it is funneled to the state's general fund, but some had hoped portions could be earmarked for education.

Meantime, Las Vegas Sands confirmed that it has not purchased property in South Florida but is conducting site visits. Spokesman Nick Larossi said Las Vegas Sands will most likely not buy land until lawmakers approve the gaming license.

At the end of the event, chamber members were asked to complete a straw poll, which will be used to gauge support for destination casinos. Questions included, "If passed, should destination gaming operators be required to hire locally?" and "Should legislation pass to allow Destination resorts in, do you support efforts to ensure that funding be directed to local government to offset investments in infrastructure -- such as additional police and transportation solutions?"

Click here to read all the questions on the straw poll.

The strongest argument the majority of panelists delivered was on the topic of employment.

Genting said its proposal could generate up to 100,000 direct and indirect jobs, many of which would pay between $30,000 and $50,000.

Hoppe reminded the group that the entire U.S. economy only generated 80,000 jobs last month, 20,000 fewer than it hoped to bring to South Florida.

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