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Miami moves to regulate gambling, likely derailing 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

A plan for a poker room and jai alai fronton in Edgewater may be hitting a snag after Miami commissioners moved to regulate gambling in the city — a measure that might incite a lawsuit.

The owners of Magic City Casino want to open a gaming facility as part of a planned development in the 3000 block of Biscayne Boulevard, about seven miles from the casino. Earlier this year state regulators granted the owners, family-owned West Flagler Associates, a permit for a card room and jai alai room.

On Thursday, a majority of commissioners gave initial approval to a change in the city’s zoning code that creates new obstacles for gambling establishments in the city. The commission passed the change 4-1, with Chairman Keon Hardemon opposing. Under the proposed change, new gaming establishments would need four of the five commissioners to approve the facility.

The issuance of the state permit in July elicited a strong reaction from two local big names, auto magnate Norman Braman and real estate developer Jorge Pérez, who vehemently oppose gaming expansion in Miami. Neither was present at Thursday’s commission meeting, but their representatives spoke in support of the new zoning rules.

Hardemon, on the other hand, echoed the feelings of Isadore “Izzy” Havenick, vice president of West Flagler, before the vote.

“The way that this ordinance is written has an negative affect on only one person, and that person is you,” Hardemon told Havenick.

Havenick expressed his frustration as he objected to the city creating a new zoning designation for gambling just as Magic City planned to pursue its establishment as a tenant in a future project owned by Crescent Heights, Miami Beach developer Russell Galbut’s company.

“You’re targeting us because we are the only ones with the ability to do this,” he told commissioners.

Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district includes the site of the planned gambling establishment, disputed Havenick’s comments. In particular, he disagreed with Havenick’s suggestion that the reason no Edgewater residents were present at Thursday’s hearing was because there was no true resident opposition to Magic City’s plans.

Russell said he’s attended multiple homeowners association meetings and received numerous calls and emails speaking out against a gambling room in the neighborhood.

“There is palpable concern,” he said.

Ron Book, lobbyist for Magic City, reiterated promises he made in July when the matter was first discussed at the commission. He pledged Magic City would commit to never pursue slot machines or casino-style games at the Edgewater facility. Book’s comments were preceded by a few dozen Magic City employees wearing orange shirts emblazoned with “Magic City Jai Alai” who vouched for the casino’s management and spoke of new jobs and revenue from tourists should the fronton and card room open.

After some back-and-forth, including tense moments where City Attorney Victoria Méndez challenged the Magic City group to legally establish that its project would be blocked by the new legislation, the commission approved the regulations on first reading. Méndez invited Magic City’s team to meet with city administrators before the final vote later this month.

Havenick and Magic City’s representatives have made it clear they will sue if commissioners move forward with the zoning change.

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