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Jai-alai and poker could be coming to downtown Miami

The owners of Magic City Casino want to bring a new jai-alai fronton and poker room to downtown Miami.
The owners of Magic City Casino want to bring a new jai-alai fronton and poker room to downtown Miami.

The owners of Magic City Casino and Flagler Dog Track want to bring pelotas and poker chips to downtown Miami. But slot machines are off the table — at least for now.

West Flagler Associates, Ltd. has applied for a pari-mutuel permit that would bring a jai-alai fronton to 3000 Biscayne Boulevard in downtown Miami, near Edgewater, the Design District and Midtown. The 50,000 square-foot facility would occupy the former site of the law firm Legal Services of Miami on the boulevard’s west side.

Under Florida law, West Flagler could open a poker room in the building the day after the first game is played. Isadore Havenick, vice-president of political affairs for West Flagler Associates, estimates the facility will have between 20-25 poker tables. The company applied for what is known as a “summer jai alai” permit in 2015 that was subsequently allowed by the Florida courts.

“We think we can make jai alai fun and exciting again and do stuff that will garner people's interest,” Havenick said about the sport, which peaked in popularity in the U.S. from the 1950s to the early 1980s but is now nearly extinct. “We felt downtown was a good area for us to go into. It’s a neighborhood with a busy nightlife scene, so a poker room and jai-alai fronton would be an added amenity for people.”

Havenick insists the company has no plans to add slot machines or other gambling, since state law currently forbids the opening of new casinos.

But this week, Florida House and Senate leaders agreed to concessions that could lead to the expansion of casinos around the state.

The land where the proposed fronton will be built is owned by Crescent Heights, the development firm that has been snapping up lots and properties in the Edgewater area — more than eight acres. West Flagler Associates would be tenants at the location.

Russell Galbut, managing principal of Crescent Heights, was unavailable for comment.

Businesses and developers near the proposed location of the fronton are skeptical of its chance of success as a sports arena — and concerned about its possible expansion into a casino.

“Jai alai has been a dead sport here forever and that's not going to pay for itself,” said Norman Braman, an auto magnate whose dealership is located nearby.

According to financial statements filed in bankruptcy court, Miami Jai Alai Casino’s jai alai operation brought a net loss of around $1 million per year, while the slot machines raked in $1.1 million every week of 2012.

But Scott Savin, COO of West Flagler Associates, believes there’s a fresh way to market jai alai — which originated in Spain — to U.S. audiences that hasn’t been fully explored yet. And the profitability of the poker room will be enough to sustain the facility, without having to add slot machines.

“The misunderstanding is that poker on its own can produce enough revenue to make it more than a viable business,” Savin said.

The Biscayne Boulevard facility isn’t the only fronton in the works. Earlier this year, the owner of Hialeah Park broke ground in Florida City on a development that will include jai alai and likely poker.

According to the Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation, slot machine gaming revenues for the ongoing 2016-2017 fiscal year at the Magic City Casino are at $59,796,741. Cardroom gross receipts stand at $6,251,669.

Even though casinos are profitable businesses, they may not be good for communities. According to a study conducted by the National Association of Realtors, casinos are likely to have negative impact on nearby home values, generate low-paying jobs and increase bankruptcies, crime, traffic and congestion.

“This is a prelude for some type of slots and gambling, which is not what Biscayne Blvd needs,” Braman said. “This is something I’ve long felt strongly about: The dangers of casino and gambling expansion into downtown and Miami Beach. There is no community any of the gambling proponents can point to and say it has improved because of gambling. All it does is suck the money out of the people in the community.”

Said Craig Robins, president and CEO of Dacra, the development company that revitalized the nearby Design District, “it would be very unfortunate if the city were to allow that use to that location. It would be even more negative if they were subsequently able to expand to other forms of gaming as well.”

Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this story.

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