Downtown Miami

They were shocked to learn of gambling at a new Miami site. Now they’ve declared war.

The neon sign atop the Magic City Casino on Flagler Street in Miami. The casino’s owners are seeking to build a poker room and jai alai fronton on Biscayne Boulevard in the city’s Edgewater neighborhood.
The neon sign atop the Magic City Casino on Flagler Street in Miami. The casino’s owners are seeking to build a poker room and jai alai fronton on Biscayne Boulevard in the city’s Edgewater neighborhood. Miami Herald file photo

A plan by the owners of Magic City Casino to build a poker room and jai alai fronton in the middle of Miami's blossoming Edgewater district seemed to fly largely under the public's radar — until Florida gaming regulators actually approved the permit last week. Now the matter has hit the fan.

On Monday, some of the city's business and cultural heavyweights, including auto magnate Norman Braman and developer Jorge Perez, declared war on the gambling facility, calling it everything from "idiotic" to "disgraceful."

In loose association with other luminaries and anti-casino voices such as Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibarguen, developer Armando Codina and Miami Design District developer Craig Robins, Braman and Perez say they have begun exploring legal and political challenges at the state and local level to stop the still-unnamed facility in its tracks.

"I will do anything that is in my power to oppose this and block this and kill this," said Perez, chairman and CEO of the Related Group, which has developed several condo towers in Edgewater, in a phone interview from Italy. "Miami has grown beautifully in the past two decades into a real city where culture is thriving. Neighborhoods and downtown are getting filled with young people and families. It's getting filled with art and businesses. Casino gambling in any form in the downtown area would be horrendous.

"I just need to find out who is responsible for this, so we can mount an attack."

The party behind the plan is West Flagler Associates, a family-controlled firm that also owns and operates Magic City, the former Flagler Dog Track. Last week, the firm received a so-called "summer jai alai" permit from the state Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. Under Florida's convoluted gambling laws, that permit requires West Flagler to run limited jai-alai games at a facility on the 3000 block of Biscayne Boulevard as a legal fig leaf for opening a far more lucrative, year-round poker room.

West Flagler vice president Isadore "Izzy" Havenick said the facility would be a tenant in a new complex planned by Miami Beach developer Russell Galbut's Crescent Heights, which owns most of the block. That would place gambling within scant blocks of the Design District, Braman's principal cluster of auto dealerships and Related's newest and largest Edgewater development, the three-tower Paraiso Bay. It will also be within walking distance of YoungArts, the foundation for young artists based on the former Bacardi site.

Havenick said he expected some opposition to the gaming facility, especially from Braman and Codina, both longtime anti-casino activists, and added that he will contact them to explain the project and "alleviate their concerns."

"As a resident of that neighborhood, I don’t believe it’s a bad thing for the neighborhood," Havenick said. "This will be a good attraction. It is not going to be anything more than poker and jai alai. We’ve said that all along. It is not a casino. It’s simply poker in an area that has many other forms of entertainment, and this is another form of that.

"To come out against a project before you know all the details is fairly shortsighted."

Crescent Heights developer Galbut could not be reached for comment.

Perez, Braman and Codina all insisted in separate interviews that the odd jai alai and poker-room combo is just a step in the gambling industry's strategy to gradually win approval for full-scale casinos in Miami and across the state in the face of legislative indecision.

"That’s the proverbial camel getting the nose under the tent," said Codina, a board member of Town Square Neighborhood Development Corporation, a nonprofit that has pushed for appropriately scaled new construction around the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

The critics of the Edgewater gaming facility say it risks eroding years of patient work to transform Miami's downtown and once-seedy neighborhoods to its north into a thriving cultural and residential center.

"It would be very sad to see that two families with established roots in Miami would damage this community in such a way for what is financial gain," Perez said of the Edgewater plan. "It would seem to me to absolutely absurd."

Added Robins, also a pioneering developer in the transformation of South Beach: "This will just lower the bar dramatically. It will do for that area what the sleazy bars and clubs did for Ocean Drive. It will bring the whole area down. It's a disgraceful idea."

According to a study by the National Association of Realtors, casinos are likely to hurt nearby home values, generate low-paying jobs and increase bankruptcies, crime, traffic and congestion.

Ibarguen noted the Knight Foundation has invested millions of dollars in cultural programming and facilities and tech entrepreneurship in and around downtown as a means of diversifying Miami's image and economy — progress he argued "gambling dens" would reverse.

"It's hard to imagine making a worse mistake. Miami's ascent as a global, 21st Century city has been nothing short of remarkable," he wrote in an email. "Why should we agree to cheapen that?"

Jai alai, once a dying sport, has undergone a bit of a revival and West Flagler and other operators seize on it as a vehicle for expansion by exploiting a loophole in Florida law. The law grants a summer jai alai permit to the lowest-performing pari-mutuel facility in a county.

That then allows an operator who runs a limited season of jai alai matches to open a year-round card room. The owner of Hialeah Park, for instance, built a jai alai fronton and poker room in Florida City last year, promptly zipped through 58 performances of eight games each to meet the state minimum, then suspended jai alai play until May 2019, when it must host at least 58 more performances to keep the card room open.

West Flagler is now phasing out dog racing at Magic City Casino in favor of jai alai. The firm won a summer jai alai permit in 2011, then successfully applied for a second permit on Biscayne Boulevard when an appeals court agreed with its interpretation of an obscure side rule.

Braman and Perez say they have lawyers researching possible challenges to the state decision to grant the permit as well as any permits that may be needed from the city of Miami. At first blush, Codina conceded, the Crescent Height property's land-use classification and zoning appear to allow gaming as an entertainment use, but it's unclear whether the project would require any public hearings or approval by the city commission.

In either case, Braman said, he intends to press elected officials to put a stop to it. Braman, echoing other critics, said it would be "outrageous" for a gaming complex to be built in the city with no input from the public or their elected representatives.

"We don’t need gambling in the city of Miami," he said. "We’re doing very well without it. Gambling is a parasite, and this is an invasion."

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