Developer still working on gambling permits for Florida City

Florida City leaders plan to extend indefinitely a deadline for a developer to get state gambling permits before building a jai-alai fronton and casino on U.S. 1.

A majority of the city commissioners said Tuesday night that they would support an ordinance rezoning two parcels totaling 23 acres belonging to Ft. Myers Real Estate Holdings LLC. In 2011, the company’s principal , David Romanik, proposed the project to the city, and commissioners later agreed — contingent on the company getting state gambling permits.

The ordinance, which is expected to be on the commission’s May 7 agenda, would be the second extension given to the developer due to difficulties in obtaining the necessary permits to allow gaming on the site.

Mayor Otis T. Wallace said that while the state’s recent ban on Internet cafe gambling might appear discouraging, he suggested the outlook for casino gambling might be more positive. “It was a lesser category that was eliminated altogether. I support the extension to see what the state does finally,” he said.

Romanik’s concept plan for the Florida City property, which is on U.S. 1 next to the Florida Keys Outlet Center, included a jai-alai fronton, eventual quarter horse racetrack, poker card rooms and slot machines, targeted to the estimated 2 million visitors per year who come through Florida City en route to the Everglades and Florida Keys. In July 2012, the city agreed to rezone the parcel, from Planned Unit Development to Commercial Recreation, conditioned on obtaining the necessary gaming permit(s) within six months.

Jai-alai frontons and horse tracks often attract only small crowds, but they enable the owners to install slot machines and card tables that can be more profitable.

“I know what the statutes say, and we’re entitled to the jai-alai permit,” said Romanik, whose permit denial by the state Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering is on appeal.

The proposed Florida City zoning ordinance would extend the commercial entertainment land use for the property indefinitely, requiring only an approved site plan, a development agreement with the city, and the state gaming permit for building to proceed.

Industry watchers expect Florida gaming legislation to resume in about a year, after a study of gaming’s economic impacts has been conducted by Spectrum Gaming Group to better guide law makers’ decisions.

“I’m very optimistic,” said Romanik , who attended the University of Florida’s law school with the mayor’s wife, Greer Wallace. “There will be millions of dollars for the city to harvest if this happens. It could mean up to 500 to 600 jobs,” Romanik’s original projection had been for 280 jobs, indicating his expectation that permitting, when it resumes, will be heavily leveraged on real or advertised economic benefits to the state and local community.

Although many of the city’s unemployed will need additional training and occupational licenses to fill most permanent casino jobs, still, jobs of any kind and number would be welcomed in the town where Miami-Dade County estimates unemployment at 15 percent.

“I’ve been to a lot of little towns like Florida City, and this mayor did a great job bringing in those big-box stores. That sold me right there,” Romanik said.

Citing his track record of six wins to no losses in Florida’s First District Court of Appeal for the past five years, Romanik said the hurdles for obtaining the gaming permit are political rather than legal.

“At least the mayor will know it’s not for lack of trying,” he said.