Hungry for economic development and jobs, Florida City is ready to embrace parimutuel gambling.
That could come in the form of a quarter horse racetrack, jai-alai fronton — or both — located adjacent to the Florida Keys Outlet Center. Either format would carry a license for the ultimate goal: a casino with a poker room and slot machines just east of Florida’s Turnpike that could draw both residents and tourists passing through the South Miami-Dade city on the way to the Florida Keys.
“It’s another piece in trying to recover the economy in this area,” Mayor Otis Wallace said. “It will present another revenue resource for the city. In these tough economic times, it’s important to look at other sources other than taxing people to death.”
The initiative is another sign of the gambling industry’s determination to expand. Despite the state Legislature’s denial last spring of full-scale destination gambling, some industry players are exploiting loopholes in state law to expand parimutuel betting.
If the Florida City effort succeeds, it will have plenty of company. Miami-Dade and Broward counties are already home to a half-dozen parimutuel facilities that operate slots and card rooms in addition to wagering on parimutuel sports; two more existing parimutuels in the region are eligible for slots. And that doesn’t include the four tribal casino facilities in the two counties.
Behind the plans for Florida City is Ocala gambling attorney David Romanik, the former general counsel of Gulfstream Park. In 2010, the state turned down an application for a quarter horse racing permit in Florida City by Romanik’s company, Fort Myers Real Estate Holdings. While that fight remains in litigation, Romanik acknowledged that applying for a jai-alai fronton could be his next move.
“Should the quarter horse [effort] fail, or if it’s going to take too long, I’m going to shift over to a different type of permit for that property,” Romanik said.
But industry experts say when it comes to economics, neither the racetrack nor the jai-alai fronton are going to drive business.
“The only reason to have the license is to have the ability to open a casino or slots,” said Brian McGill, an analyst who follows the gambling industry for Janney Capital Markets. “The key is you do everything possible to minimize your costs on the parimutuel side and focus on maximizing the revenue through slots.”
Florida City began clearing the way for gambling this summer, when the City Commission agreed to rezone nearly 25 acres at the southwest corner of Southwest 172nd Avenue and Southwest 336th Street. The commission created a new land-use category for gambling. The rezoning came at the request of property owner Fort Myers Real Estate Holdings, which purchased the two parcels of land in 2010 and 2011 for $6.5 million.
Wallace says he didn’t like the Internet gambling that was popping up in convenience stores around his city. He didn’t want to outlaw gambling, but he felt it was important for the city to control where any facilities would be located.
His solution: Create a designated place for gambling far enough away from schools and homes.Preliminary plans presented to Florida City by Romanik’s group in June call for a 30,000-square-foot building to house the jai-alai fronton, as well as the card room and video gambling machines. The mayor said it might open as soon as next year. A second phase could come later with a quarter horse track.