Homestead - South Dade

Could jai-alai and poker turn Florida City around?

Florida City and the owner of Hialeah Park have broken ground on a development that will include a jai-alai fronton, and eventually, they hope, a poker room.
Florida City and the owner of Hialeah Park have broken ground on a development that will include a jai-alai fronton, and eventually, they hope, a poker room.

Florida City, the most impoverished and southernmost city in Miami-Dade County, sits on two popular tourist routes: U.S. 1, a road that stretches from the mainland way down into the Florida Keys, and Ingraham Highway, which runs west through Everglades National Park.

Hoping to take advantage of that prime location, the owner of Hialeah Park has broken ground in Florida City on a development that will include a jai-alai fronton, and later, he hopes, a poker room that will draw in tourists en route to someplace else.

Developers are hustling to build it quickly to meet a tight deadline. According to their state permit, the property must hold its first jai-alai matches by June 11 and three more sets by June 18. As a result, the games will debut in a not-so-fancy pre-fab structure, and trailers will house a poker room, bathrooms and showers. Food trucks and small snack bars will be stationed out front.

“They have a very tight timeline to get this built. It’s very clear what’s going on. They are working very feverishly to finish it,” said Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace, a booster of the project for its economic development benefits. “Their ultimate vision for the rest of that property in the far future includes an entertainment complex. For now though, this is the focus.”

John Brunetti, owner of the casino and historic horse racing track in Hialeah, purchased the Florida City property at 345 E. Palm Dr. for $6.7 million in late 2015. The 28-acre property, which includes a popular RV park, is a few feet away from U.S. 1 and sits right across from the Florida Keys Outlet Mall, chain restaurants and a townhouse community. For now, he calls it King’s Court, although the name isn’t necessarily permanent.

If Brunetti fails to hold the four days of jai-alai matches by the deadline, the state will hold a hearing to determine whether to fine him or suspend the license.

Wallace sees the complex as the magnet for other new businesses in the agricultural city. He noted that the closest card room is about 35 miles north, up Krome Avenue at the Miccosukee Resort & Gaming.

In 2015, Florida City was home to about 12,000 residents — almost half of them living under the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census. Its farmland stretches across thousands of acres, and its housing is a mix of old, dilapidated homes and new developments.

Right now, about 150 single family homes, 114 town homes and two hotels are in the works. Also in the pipeline are a Publix, Family Dollar, Harbor Freight, Waffle House, Texas Roadhouse, and Enterprise car rental.

“The excitement that goes with a project like this always spurs other development around it,” Wallace said. “This will give people a reason to stop and invest in our community. ”

In the long run, plans for King’s Court also include a hotel, restaurants, an entertainment venue, and perhaps some stores. Those plans, however, call for the shut-down of the Southern Comfort RV Resort, a campground that attracts seasonal workers at Turkey Point and snowbirds seeking affordable housing near the Florida Keys.

The RV park takes up more than half of the property’s 28 acres. Brunetti said the timeline for closing the park is unclear.

“Right now the development activity is east of the RV park,” he said. “We haven’t planned that far in advance yet.”

The state’s 30-year-old gambling law allows a summer permit to be awarded to the lowest-performing parimutuel in a county. In 2011, less money was wagered at Hialeah Park than at any of Miami-Dade’s other parimutuels, which enabled Brunetti to obtain the summer jai-alai permit, which could also open the door to expanded gambling.

At that point, Brunetti had the chance to build anywhere. He chose Florida City.

His new site is starkly different than Hialeah Park, which Brunetti has owned since 1977. The park opened in 1922 and later came to be known as the most beautiful racetrack in the world, according to the National Register of Historic Places, which designated the park as historic in 1979. Later, with its landscaped gardens and resident flamingos, the site was recognized as a bird sanctuary by the Audubon Society.

After a battle over racing dates, the Hialeah track went dark for eight seasons. Today, it hosts quarter horse races and a casino with a poker room and more than 800 slot machines. Brunetti hopes to bring a slice of the same to Florida City.

“The location [in Florida City] is favorable, not only because of tourists heading to and from the Keys, but also because the Homestead Speedway and Biscayne National Park are so close by,” Brunetti said. “It’s perfect.”

After launching jai-alai, Brunetti plans to apply for a license to operate a poker room — jai-alai is a prerequisite to operate a card room. King’s Court isn’t eligible for slot machines under state law, but Wallace and Brunetti hope that will change. Slot machines are far more popular in the gambling world — and bring in more money.

Last year, Wallace told the Miami Herald that he and the developer are waiting for the Legislature to finish discussing “decoupling” — a concept that would allow jai-alai frontons, dog tracks and horse tracks to offer slots without running a parimutuel.

Decoupling is included in an expansive gaming bill pending before the state Senate. A more limited gambling bill proposed in the state House does not include decoupling.

Back down in Florida City, James Milnor, who has been staying at Southern Comfort since 2008, said the developers would be “foolish to build on developed land.”

“There are many other sites in the area that are completely vacant land. More than 300 families spend thousands of dollars in the Florida City area each year,” Milnor said. “If and when the RV resort is replaced by hotels, restaurants and a casino, I can assure you that our family will not return to Florida City.”

According to Brunetti, the project will go through two phases. The first phase, which is expected to be completed by June on about three acres, will include an indoor 17,600-square-foot jai-alai center, a 2,750-square-foot bingo trailer, restroom trailers and shower trailers.

Once the facility hosts its first game, Brunetti is then eligible to apply for a license to operate a poker room.

“There will be portable food trucks for now. Once we go into Phase 2, we’ll most likely break ground on a second structure, where there will be a food and beverage spot along with other amenities,” he said.

Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

Monique O. Madan: 305-376-2108, @MoniqueOMadan