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Monroe commissioner wants to roll dice on Keys casino

Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent is gambling that a casino in Marathon will rejuvenate the local economy and raise money for sewer construction.

His plan is in the infant stages, but the four-term commissioner says he's floated the idea of trying to get a casino at Florida Keys Marathon Airport with numerous Middle Keys real estate agents, hoteliers and restaurant owners, among others, and has "yet to get a negative response."

"I'm just asking to have a civil discussion about this," Neugent said Tuesday, adding he's spoken to Gov. Rick Scott and state House Speaker Dean Cannon about the idea.

"I talked to the governor and the speaker and they said bring us something that the community supports and that creates jobs and we'd [consider] it. My only interest is to help our economy," Neugent said.

Neugent planned to pitch the idea at Tuesday's Marathon City Council meeting to secure the council's blessing to move forward. He said he also plans to pitch it to his fellow county commissioners.

"If the City Council members don't go along with it, it would be hard-pressed for us to justify moving forward with this," he said.

Neugent said he's open to any and all ideas for an airport casino, including slot machines, a card room, roulette wheels and sports betting. But he's admittedly unsure what's feasible.

"I don't have the answer to that, but there would be some [legislation]. There may even have to be an amendment to the [state] Constitution," he said. "This is going to be an education for me and a lot of people."

State Rep. Ron Saunders, the Democratic House minority leader from Key West, said he's discussed the idea with Neugent. He said amending the Constitution is "not a likely scenario" and suggested opening a pari-mutuel betting facility and adding table games later as has been done in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

"I'm not even getting into the moral issues or political issues. That's something the voters have to decide on," Saunders said.

According to the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation website, there are 27 pari-mutuel betting parlors in Florida. It says wagering is authorized for horse racing, greyhound racing, jai alai and poker games. Slot machines at pari-mutuels are authorized in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Neugent said a casino would be a boon to the Middle Keys' struggling economy and generate much-needed income for sewer projects up and down the Keys. He said it could potentially raise property values, encourage resort redevelopment, create jobs and coax a major commercial airline to serve the city.

"Looking at the closed store fronts that exist up and down the Keys, especially the Middle Keys, and people hurting because of this economy, I think that Marathon, if it supports this proposal, is a place that represents a good place located at the airport. It has unused parking and space for development," he said.

In 2010, the Legislature shot down Neugent's plan for a one-penny sales tax to raise money for Keys sewer projects.

"They said [to] create a revenue source, but not by taxing. OK, this is my second idea. Whatever profits are generated beyond operations would be to standardize and stabilize sewer rates from Key Largo to Key West," he said.

Neugent suggested that whatever company would operate a casino would agree to pay the county a certain percentage of the gross profits. "Something along those lines that the receiver of the contract would pay a franchise fee," he said.

Saunders said he's not sure if that's possible, but that Neugent is taking the right step by starting at the local level. "My understanding is if casinos do generate income, it goes to the state. We don't know if they'd turn around and give it to the Keys. But if the local folks don't want one, what's the point in finding these things out," he said.

Former Islamorada mayor and 2010 County Commission candidate Mike Forster suggested putting a casino at the airport during his unsuccessful campaign. The idea was laughed off at the time, but he says it's a "no-brainer."

"I said it jokingly, but in my heart I really did mean it. It helps us and diversifies our economy," he said.

Daniel Samess, chief executive officer at the Greater Marathon Chamber of Commerce, offered an early take Tuesday.

"It's so early it's hard to comment or take any position," he said. "We're open to any ideas, something that could potentially attract air service and something our businesses would benefit from without taking away from the family atmosphere we're so proud of."