With the Legislature recently outlawing Internet cafes, it underscores more then ever the need to have an objective, unbiased public debate on the true impact of the proposal to expand legalized casino gambling in Florida.
Issues associated with the Internet cafe debate pale in comparison to the myriad and complexity of issues the state must evaluate as officials consider the many advantages and disadvantages of expanded casino gambling.
The proponents of expanded casino gambling cite job growth, additional tourism, increasing business and tax revenues, and decreasing the local community tax burden as the economic benefits of casino gambling. Less often mentioned are the costs of crime, compulsive gambling, erosion of work ethic, traffic congestion, infrastructure improvements, and other “social costs.”
The key issue is: Will the expansion of casino gambling in Miami-Dade and other counties hinder or foster economic development in Florida?
There is no question the casinos and projects associated with gambling will prosper, but are there economic benefits for the community as a whole resulting in noncasino job creation? Will casinos draw from other venues and sectors? Before the state and local governments agree to support the expansion of gambling, as attractive as the proposals may seem, an objective dialogue must evaluate the potential short- and long-term impacts on Florida. Among the key issues that should be examined and considered:
• Land speculation could inflate prices of real estate and appraised value of land around the casino development, ensuring that no one could afford to buy or rent near the property. Many merchants may have to find locations elsewhere. Residential displacement for low- and moderate-housing could be an end result.
• Employment. Only employees who have been trained to work in casinos will be able to get the higher-paying, skilled jobs at casinos. Few locals are trained for these jobs currently. No casino should open unless and until the local workforce can be identified and trained.
• Regulatory requirements. Will employees with criminal records be allowed to work at the casinos? What controls are needed? How can we ensure that local companies are equitably represented as casino vendors and service providers?
• Cannibalization of current local business. Destination resorts often have a negative impact on neighboring businesses because consumers are encouraged to stay in the resort to spend their money instead of going out to local restaurants, merchants, and other venues.
• The social costs. Who pays for the social costs of alcoholism, gambling addiction, prostitution, organized and street crime? The price of these “social costs” is usually vastly underestimated by local government.
• Traffic and costs associated with new infrastructure. Who pays?
Also, what impact, if any would casinos have on tourism, economic development and district revitalizations?
History shows that the state is usually the major beneficiary of new tax revenues, while local governments receive proportionately less and usually assume most of the costs. What are the recent tax models adopted by other states with casinos?
There are also questions about issuing a “temporary license” to open before being fully vetted.
And what impact would a new casino have on current pari-mutuels and the potential loss of tax revenue and jobs they generate? Do casinos support a prospective image of Florida as a diversified international business platform in addition to tourism? Also, would the local governments affected by gambling have an input relative to casino regulation and economic investment requirements or would this fall only on the state?
There must be an objective and thorough analysis — not paid for by the casinos or any other “partners” invested in gambling. I recommend that Gov. Rick Scott develop a blue ribbon committee to work in concert with the Legislature and local governments in evaluating this issue. This independent study should encompass, but not be limited to, the issues outlined above.
The thrust of this study should focus on both the potential positive and negative economic and social impacts that destination casino gambling would bring to Florida.
I recommend that hearings on this issue be conducted throughout Florida.
Frank R. Nero is the former CEO of the Beacon Council, a public-private economic development partnership for Miami-Dade County.