Casino bidders serious about Florida

The arrival of Malaysian developer Genting into Miami on Friday provided the strongest signal yet that the latest attempt to bring full Las Vegas-style casinos to the Magic City is serious.

“Miami’s the crown jewel for this market — everybody knows that,’’ said Nick Iarossi, lobbyist for Las Vegas Sands Corp., which worked last legislative session with lobbyists for Genting and other casino developers to persuade lawmakers to bring resort casinos to Florida. “Everybody is posturing and planning and hoping the Legislature will make a decision to make destination resorts a reality” and Genting’s deal just “upped the ante,’’ he said.

For the past two years, since the Seminole Tribe won its right to offer not only slot machines but blackjack, baccarat and chemin de fer, the world’s casino giants have set their sights on expanding to their posh resorts to Miami. Unlike previous casino campaigns, the new resorts feature both full-fledged casinos, opulent hotels and convention space as well as family-focused entertainment centers.

Leading the charge has been Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire businessman and chairman of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., which owns resort casinos in Las Vegas, Singapore and China. In 2010, Adelson commissioned a study for legislators to show how much tax and gaming revenue the state could collect by bringing a resort casino and convention center to Florida. Adelson has said he would be willing to invest as much as $3 billion on a casino resort in Miami.

This year, Genting, Wynn Resorts and the Las Vegas Sands Corp. hired a stable of lobbyists to push a bill to create a casino selection process that would allow them each a chance to bid on a license to operate an exclusive resort casino in any of five regions of the state. The Senate moved the bill through one committee but it failed to pass. Legislators did approve a $400,000 study to look at the economic impact of bringing resort casinos to Florida but Gov. Rick Scott vetoed that on Thursday.

In his veto letter, however, Scott didn’t shut the door on the casino plan. He urged lawmakers “to make a comprehensive review of additional gaming” and, in what the promoters viewed as an encouraging development, Scott wrote: “I believe it is important to have a full consideration of the positive economic impact, the costs that may result from this policy, and the impact on current gaming in our state.”

Iarossi called Gensing’s investment “great for the effort.’’

“We welcome competition,’’ he said. “The ultimate winner is Florida. The more competition, the more spectacular the projects and the more revenues for the state. It shows that we’re all serious about this. They’ve definitely upped the ante and hopefully the Legislature and the governor will take the effort seriously.”

Genting’s two-year lease with The Miami Herald also gives the industry time to persuade the Legislature that allowing competition with the Seminole’s seven casinos will be more lucrative for the state than its current revenue-sharing compact with the tribe. Under the compact, the tribe pays the state a minimum of $150 million a year until 2015. The money stops, however, if the state authorizes additional gambling. After five years, the compact can be re-negotiated.

“There’s no question this is being bought for a gaming operation,’’ said Ron Book, a Miami lobbyist who represents Flagler Dog Track and Magic City Casinos. He said many in the pari-mutuel industry support the casino effort as long as they “figure a way to operate on a level playing field. But they can’t give these guys an exclusive franchise and ignore those who have been here for decades.”

But Book also predicted that getting both conservative Republicans in the Legislature and the Tea Party-backed governor to sign onto expanded gambling is a long shot. “I don’t see how they can get this through this Legislature or the next Legislature,’’ he said.

More surprising, Book added, is the decision by The Miami Herald to sell property to a gambling operator when its editorial board has “opposed every gaming initiative in my lifetime.’’

“You probably have people like [former Miami Herald publisher] Alvah Chapman turning over in their graves,’’ he said.