Florida City could get jai-alai or horse racing, plus a casino

Plans are under way to bring casino gambling to Florida City. First step: securing a state permit for quarter horse racing or jai-alai. A casino would follow.

08/24/2012 5:00 AM

08/27/2012 10:16 PM

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.

Florida City officials were told that the project would create between 150 and 200 jobs during construction. The card room and jai-alai fronton would yield between 75 and 100 jobs, with another 30 jobs in a video game arcade, Wallace said. Romanik’s group told city officials the facility would be assessed at about $15 million after the initial construction.

Wallace is waiting for Romanik’s group to request site plan approval after it secures the appropriate permit.

“The ball is in their court to come back to us with a plan of what they want to do,” Wallace said. “We’re expecting to see a site plan in the next month or two.”

Romanik last week declined to discuss details of his Florida City plan but said he remains confident of the region’s potential to support gambling.

“I think it’s a great location,” he said. “There are two million people driving by there every year on their way to the Keys. It’s an activity that people in that area have shown they would enjoy.”

One relatively swift path to a parimutuel license would be a partnership with an operator holding an unused permit. At least a half dozen have been issued but are not yet active, according to state records and industry sources.

Among those are recently issued “summer’’ jai-alai permits that Magic City Casino lawyers and others have obtained based on a loophole in a 1980 state gambling law. The provision allowed the facility with the lowest annual volume of bets to seek an additional jai-alai permit for use during summer months. Such permits can be used to construct a jai-alai fronton and poker room anywhere in the county in which it is issued.

“Dave Romanik has spoken to anybody and everybody with a permit,” said Isadore Havenick, vice president of government affairs for Magic City Casino in Miami, which has two unused jai-alai permits. “There are a lot more permits in Miami-Dade and Broward than there are facilities.”

Havenick says while his family has considered partnering with Romanik in Florida City, they don’t expect to make any commitments in the near future.

“He’s not the only person we’re talking to,” Havenick said. “But we’re really waiting to see what’s going to happen in the Legislature.”

If Romanik continues his efforts to secure a quarter horse permit for Florida City, he will face opposition from leading horse industry groups.

The Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association and others are fighting the state’s decision to issue a permit for barrel racing to Gretna Racing, a company in which Romanik is a partner. The horse-racing industry argues that barrel racing is not a parimutuel sport.

Horse-racing leaders fear that Romanik is trying to bring the Gretna model to Florida City, which dramatically cuts both the costs and payouts associated with racing.

“This is just a get-rich-quick scheme,” said Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “It could lead to the downfall of the thoroughbred industry. We’re fighting this tooth and nail because it’s our future.”

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