Downtown Miami

Miami moves to regulate gambling. It could stymie Magic City’s Edgewater poker room.

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

Miami commissioners have moved to regulate gambling in the city through its zoning laws — a measure that could make it more difficult for the Magic City Casino to open a proposed poker room and jai alai fronton in Edgewater.

The measure incensed Magic City’s ownership, who recently received a permit from state gaming regulators and threatened to sue the city during a tense hearing at Thursday’s City Commission meeting.

The commission voted 4-0 to create changes to Miami 21, the city’s zoning code, so that any new gaming establishments would need four yes votes instead of the usual three from the five-member commission. The resolution was introduced by commissioners Ken Russell and Willy Gort. Chairman Keon Hardemon, who said during the discussion that he did not support the proposed change, stepped away and did not cast a vote.

Now City Attorney Victoria Mendez’s office will draft an ordinance for commissioners to consider later this year. Mendez maintained Thursday’s vote was not targeting Magic City and it does not block its effort to seek approvals from the city. But she said the vote does give Magic City notice that the casino’s owners can seek those approvals at their own risk, and they are not guaranteed to be considered under the existing zoning laws when they do.

Magic City’s lobbyist, Ron Book, pointed to letters from the city’s planning department explaining gambling as a use that falls under the zoning designation “entertainment” in Miami’s code. Magic City used those letters when it applied for the state permit to prove the casino had the right to operate a gambling establishment under the city’s zoning in Edgewater.

Mendez had a different opinion.

“What they have from 2012 and from 2018 are zoning verification letters, and that is not granting them any particular rights in my opinion,” she said. “That can be challenged, and we could discuss that further.”

That challenge may be imminent; Book repeatedly suggested Magic City would take the city to court over the matter.

The owners of the Magic City Casino want to build the gaming establishment as part of a planned development on the 3000 block of Biscayne Boulevard, and the state regulators recently approved a permit for the facility. West Flagler Associates, the family-run company that operates Magic City, would open the card room and jai-alai fronton as a tenant in a complex planned by Crescent Heights, Miami Beach developer Russell Galbut’s company.

Isadore “Izzy” Havenick, vice president of West Flagler, told the Miami Herald he felt the city was unjustly changing its zoning laws to target his future business — which has sought a state gaming permit for years.

“I’m deeply disappointed and saddened that the city would change the rules of the game,” he said after the vote.

Russell, whose district includes the site of the proposed facility, refuted Havenick. He said he simply wants to create a process where residents are notified of proposed gambling facilities in their neighborhood and given a chance to weigh in before the commission.

“It’s not intended to damage his business,” Russell said. “It’s intended to give the public a seat at the table.”

Book told commissioners Magic City agreed to a covenant that would prevent slot machines and other casino-style games from ever opening up at the Edgewater facility. When it became clear commissioners were not swayed, he said a legal judgment against the city would cost millions and also allow Magic City broader latitude to pursue a full casino.

“If what’s been stated is they don’t want casinos, we told them we were prepared to commit here today to no lawsuit, no anything, no slot machines, no roulette, no craps ever, simply what’s allowed under law today, which is a jai alai fronton with an accompanying card room,” Book said.

Unseen were auto magnate Norman Braman and real estate developer Jorge Pérez, two local luminaries who came out strongly against the plan after Magic City received the permit. Their lawyer, Stephen Helfman, told commissioners the zoning verification letters did not guarantee Magic City’s ability to expand gambling forever.

“This is all a bunch of bluffing,” Helfman said.