Hialeah to Begin Casino Construction
By Jim Freer
Updated: Sunday, September 11, 2011
Photo: Coady Photography
Ground Breaking ceremony for the Casino at Hialeah Park.
Hialeah Park on Sept. 9 announced details for a $150 million casino the South Florida track intends to start building this month and open in November 2012.
The track’s plan calls for reconstructing the grandstand on the north side of its current building and connecting it to a new building that would be north of its garden area. The casino would include 1,250 Las Vegas-style slot machines, 30 poker tables, and several dining areas.
John Brunetti Sr., Hialeah Park’s owner and chairman, also announced plans for a second phase of development at the 206-acre property—where the only racing is now Quarter Horses.
Starting in 2014, Hialeah plans to build two hotels, a parking garage, a retail complex, and an office building.
“We will have everything that all the others have and more, and we will be the best,” Brunetti said as he unveiled a model of the planned complex.
The “others” he cited are the casinos operated by five pari-mutuels and two Indian tribes in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area. Calder Casino & Race Course and Gulfstream Park are among the pari-mutuels with casinos and Las Vegas-style slot machines.
Brunetti is moving ahead with casino plans even though Calder and two other pari-mutuels are pursuing a lawsuit in state courts in which they are challenging Hialeah’s legal rights to have a casino.
Last Nov. 22, a circuit court judge in Tallahassee ruled in favor of Hialeah. Plaintiffs Calder, Miami Jai-Alai and Magic City Casino (formerly known as Flagler Greyhound) appealed to the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee, which heard oral arguments Sept. 7.
Both sides anticipate the case could ultimately move to and be decided by the Supreme Court of Florida, with no final decision likely until the second half of next year. Ongoing legal questions include whether a court could require Hialeah to close an operating casino.
At the Sept. 9 announcement, held in a Hialeah Park building previously used as a paddock pavilion restaurant, the lawsuit was not mentioned by Brunetti, Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, and other local elected officials.
Instead, they talked about the event’s “Hialeah Park Now and Forever” theme. They emphasized that the expansion of the historic property would bring economic development and jobs to the city of Hialeah, which is adjacent to Miami, as well as preserving the track’s architecture and paddock and garden areas.
Brunetti later told The Blood-Horse that he plans to spend $150 million to build a casino. He said financing would come from a combination of funding from his own company, the Brunetti Organization, and a loan arranged by Goldman Sachs.
“Goldman Sachs is working on details with the other lenders that will be part of it, so I can’t give out the names yet,” said Brunetti, who has owned the track since 1977.
Hialeah Park will not have a casino company as a partner during the development stage or after a casino opens, he added.
Last month, Hialeah hired Steve Calabro for the new position of director of gaming. Calabro was Gulfstream’s president and general manager from May 2010 until June 2011, and spent the three previous years as the track’s vice president of gaming with responsibility for its casino and poker room.
Philadelphia-based EwingCole is the architect and design firm for Hialeah’s casino. Some of the firm’s previous casino projects were built for Penn National Race Course, Yonkers Raceway, and Zia Park.
Link Construction Group of Miami is the contractor for Gulfstream’s casino project.
On Sept. 9, the north side of Hialeah’s building appeared to still be in clean-up stages. The pace of work will speed up in several weeks, Brunetti said.
The north section of the building was not open when Hialeah held Quarter Horse meets in 2009-2010 and 2010-2011. Hialeah has not had Thoroughbred racing since 2001, and now has only a Quarter Horse permit that it obtained in 2009.
Starting in 2002, Florida deregulated Thoroughbred racing dates. Hialeah stopped holding meets, rather than carrying out the other option of running head-to-head against Gulfstream or Calder.
Hialeah will hold its third Quarter Horse meet from Dec. 10, 2011 until Feb. 19, 2012 with racing Fridays through Sundays.
Under its Quarter Horse permit, Hialeah can have Thoroughbred races for up to half of a meet’s races, but it does not plan to have any Thoroughbred races in 2011-2012, Brunetti said.
He expects that in 2011 some members of the Florida Legislature will introduce a bill that would allow Hialeah to obtain a new Thoroughbred permit.