Gambling debate ratchets up again

The expansion of casino gambling in Florida will not be on the agenda when the state Legislature convenes next week, but discussion about the industry’s future here is heating up once again.

A group of Wall Street analysts on Tuesday at the Florida Gaming Congress agreed it’s not a question of if destination gambling resorts will arrive in Florida, only when it will happen.

The analysts consensus prediction: at least two or three resorts in South Florida and possibly double that statewide, will open for business by 2020, with Genting Group, Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts the most likely players at least in South Florida. But getting there is not going to be an easy, as was evident at Tuesday’s event held at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood. The annual event, sponsored by Spectrum Gaming Group, drew about 150 industry executives, analysts, attorneys, lobbyists and government leaders to discuss the state of gambling in Florida.

“The Miami market is extremely attractive,” said Greg Roselli, executive director of credit fixed income with UBS Securities. “The defeat last year wasn’t surprising. They’re going to have to keep picking away at it.”

Carlo Santarelli, director of gaming and lodging research for Deutsche Bank Securities agreed, “The problem is going to be finding a solution that makes everyone happy.”

Competing interests torpedoed the effort last year and based on the discussion at Tuesday’s meeting it doesn’t seem like a whole lot has changed. Agendas still vary among the various players: the large Las Vegas and Asian gambling companies, the existing pari-mutuel facilities, the Seminole Tribe and business groups like the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Miami-Dade County’s Beacon Council.

The leaders of the Florida House and Senate put a moratorium on any gambling legislation this year, in order to conduct a thorough study of the issue. The legislature last week issued a joint solicitation for vendors willing to perform a detailed market study, which is due to be completed by October.

Former Sen. President Mike Haridopolos, now an executive with the company that owns Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, gave the keynote speech at Tuesday’s event, urging all parties to build consensus.

“They don’t get along very well in the gambling industry,” said Haridopolos, as he likened the industry’s lawyers and lobbyists to a bunch of crabs that keep pulling each other back in the bucket. “If people look at in a selfish way, it will never pass because there are too many competing interests.”

But if legislation is not approved in 2014 before Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, are out of power, Haridopolos predicts the window of opportunity will close. He singled out Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, as a vigorous opponent.

“What you’re going to have to do is to be is creative and proactive so everybody wins,’’ said Haridopolos, now executive vice president of The Stronach Group, “as opposed to pushing everyone back into the crab pot.”

Gaming attorney David Romanik doesn’t believe it’s possible to get everyone on the same page.

“I don’t think we get along well enough to ever reach a consensus,” Romanik said. “There are too many competing interests.”

The existing pari-mutuels, which stretch from Magic City Casino in Miami to the Isle of Capri in Pompano Beach, are willing to expand their facilities and add resort amenities, if they get a lower tax rate to justify the capital expense.

Dan Adkins, vice president and chief operating officer of Mardi Gras Casino in Hallandale, said his company owns 50 acres of property and years ago put on hold plans to build a hotel and garage.

“We’re fully ready to develop that property, we just need the right tax rate,” Adkins said. “In the right business environment we all could be destination casinos. You need to show respect for all those that have been here.”

Austin Miller, president of Calder Casino & Race Course, said his company doesn’t oppose allowing new companies to build resort casinos, as long as they get the same benefits.

“We’re happy to compete in a vibrant market,” Miller said. “It has to be done on a level playing field. We have to have parity.”

Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach and a member of the house gambling review committee, agrees that the needs of the racetracks must get priority in any plan that moves forward in the legislature in 2014. Both Gulfstream Park and Mardi Gras Casino are part of his district.

“We have to really look at what we’ve got first,” Gibbons said. “Charity begins at home. We don’t want this to lead to over saturation.”

Any plans for expanding gambling also need to win over support from public leaders, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Miami-Dade County’s Beacon Council and the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association. All three groups expressed concern about the impact on state and local economies..

“If this is going to be a game changer, we better be sure we know what we’re doing,” said Frank Nero, president and chief executive of the Beacon Council, who remains “skeptical” of any plans to expand gambling. “This is a major decision for the state, and it shouldn’t be done based on who pays for what consultant and what lobbyist.”

Carol Dover, chief executive of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, and Mark Wilson, president and chief executive of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, both said they remain opposed to any expansion of gambling, including destination resorts.

“Residents and tourists can gamble everywhere they want right now,” Wilson said. “What we need to do is figure out what do we already have, then down the road, consider expansion.”

The other force to be reckoned with the is the Seminole tribe, whose exclusive rights to table games as part of the compact with the state expires in 2015.

John Fontana, president of Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa, also has issues about what expansion will do to the market.

“The well of gaming revenue in the state is not bottomless,” Fontana said.

In the “Casino City Indian Gaming Industry” report released Wednesday, Indian gaming revenue grew nationally just at 3.4 percent in 2011 to reach approximately $27.4 billion, putting it above its pre-recession levels. This was the second year of growth following the Indian gaming’s first and only decline in 2009. The 2011 figures are the most recent numbers available in the report produced by Alan Meister, an economist with Nathan Associates Inc.

Florida ranked in the top states in terms of the percentage growth of Indian gaming revenue, increasing at a rate of 4.6 percent to reach $2.16 billion The state also saw the largest growth nationally in non gaming revenue at Indian gaming facilities. That number grew at a rate of 23.4 percent to $124.4 million.

The top five states in terms of Indian gaming revenue for 2011 were California, Oklahoma, Washington, Florida and Connecticut. The order of the states has shifted with Washington leapfrogging both Connecticut and Florida to jump to third place on the list. Florida moved ahead of Connecticut to become the fourth largest state.

Florida also saw the largest absolute increase in table games during 2011 with the addition of 36 tables to reach 457 table games in Indian gaming facilities.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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