Casinos at the crossroads: 7 key moments marked historic debate
The past year’s high-profile push to bring resort casinos to South Florida was marked by a string of notable moments. The debate is over for this legislative session but is sure to continue.
A visitor tries out the slot at Casino Miami Jai-Alai which opened its doors to its $87 million casino with 1,047 slots, 4 domino tables, and 24 poker tables on Wednesday, January 25, 2012 in Miami, Florida. The 40,000 square foot expansion created 100 construction jobs and 300 permanent jobs according to casino officials.
CARL JUSTE / MIAMI HERALD STAFF
BY DOUG HANKS AND ELAINE WALKER
Colin Au paced the polished marble floors of Miami’s fanciest hotel, waiting for the go-ahead to jumpstart a lavish development plan already on a fast track.
Au and his fellow Genting executives had stunned the city five months earlier on a May morning by announcing the Malaysian casino company’s purchase of The Miami Herald headquarters and plans to build a massive “destination resort” there. Genting promised a resort so spectacular and grand that it would lure vacationers from around the world, with or without a change in Florida’s gambling laws to allow a casino.
That was the plan, and now that plan was about to change dramatically. Minutes before a ballroom reception at the Four Seasons Miami, Genting Chairman K.T. Lim arrived with the news he had just signed a $161 million deal to gain control of the Omni complex adjoining The Miami Herald land. Genting promised to open a casino there within six months of Florida changing its laws.
“We are taking a calculated risk,” Au said just before unveiling his plan to a crowd of local business leaders and elected officials. “We are responding to the concerns and trying to create jobs as fast as possible. The Omni is what’s called a decorator-ready solution.”
For Genting it was a tactical move to entice the Florida Legislature with the promise of immediate jobs. But it also marked a dramatic shift in Genting’s message. Suddenly the focus wasn’t about a gleaming new resort that would help spur economic development. Now it was all about how fast Genting could open a casino.
“It just showed they were a casino-driven company,’’ said Stuart Blumberg, retired head of a leading Miami-Dade lodging trade group and a Genting critic. “You don’t walk into a community, make a land grab… and then say, ‘Within a year, you’re going to have casino gaming.’ ’’
The Omni acquisition wasn’t enough to overcome a conservative Florida Legislature already inclined to vote against new casinos. On Feb 3, one of Genting’s legislative patrons withdrew the bill designed to bring the company’s Resorts World Miami to the downtown waterfront.
The scuttling of the pro-Genting bill wasn’t a surprise to many Tallahassee watchers, who from the start gave Genting and its Las Vegas counterparts slim odds for expanding gambling in the Sunshine State. It also serves as a bookend — at least for this year — for one of the most-spirited debates over the future of South Florida’s tourism industry in recent memory.
A string of notable moments marked the debate. Among them:
Friday morning, May 27, 2011; conference room at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Miami
Miami’s business community awoke to the biggest real estate story of the year — one that unfolded in secret within the largest media company in town. Southeast Asia’s largest casino company had paid $236 million for The Miami Herald site.
Although the stunning announcement sparked a major fight to come, Genting’s rollout broadcast a different message: harmony with the neighbors. Rather than inviting the cameras to the resort’s future home at the waterfront Herald site, Genting took over a conference room across the street at the Arsht Center. Literally sitting at the table with company executives: Arsht chairman Mike Eidson.
The setting didn’t come without effort. Before the deal was announced, Genting executives told Arsht leaders they would support the cash-strapped theater with steady ticket purchases, new parking garages and a promise not to compete with the tax-funded theater’s offerings.
“Having the press conference there showed they had the Arsht Center’s support,’’ said Willy Gort, the chairman of the Miami City Commission. “It showed they were going to work together.”
Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 14; Four Seasons Miami
In unveiling Genting’s vision for Miami, Au wanted a plan bold enough to underscore the stakes.
If Florida endorsed casino resorts, Miami would get a development large enough to compete for the coveted Asian tourism market and add tens of thousands of jobs to a community where unemployment tops 10 percent.
The Arquitectonica-designed plans reinforced Genting’s promise that the project would be a “game changer,” a self-contained resort luxurious enough to woo wealthy travelers from around the world.
The 5,200 hotel rooms would almost double all of downtown Miami’s current inventory. The 50 restaurants meant about twice the number of dining spots at the major casinos on the Vegas strip. Arquitectonica’s project manager later described a casino with 800,000 square feet and 8,500 slot machines — dwarfing the 2,500 machines at the largest casino on the Vegas Strip, and big enough to give Miami the world’s largest casino.
“I think everybody was a little overwhelmed,’’ said Jack Lowell, a Miami commercial broker who became a leading Genting advocate in business circles. “People started concentrating on the project and its impact, as opposed to the larger issue of “Is destination resorts the right thing for South Florida.”
Tuesday morning, Oct. 11; Beacon Council headquarters, Miami
Frank Nero, Miami-Dade’s top economic cheerleader, summoned two Miami Herald journalists to his 24th floor office for an interview. Armed with a stack of anti-casino papers and books, Nero warned Miami could be rushing into an economic debacle.
“Casinos are vacuum cleaners,’’ said Nero, president of the Beacon Council, the county’s tax-funded economic development group.
His comments richocheted through Miami-Dade’s political and business leadership. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez and heavyweights in the private sector “wanted to ride me out of town on a rail,” Nero recalled.
Nero’s comments amounted to the first pushback against Genting from a Miami-Dade leader and foreshadowed a larger fight to come over the wisdom of more casino gambling.
Auto magnate Norman Braman, who owns dealerships near The Miami Herald site; developer Armando Codina and Miami Heat owner Micky Arison all eventually opposed the Genting plan to some degree. Even Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who handed Genting the key to the city a few weeks after the Herald deal was announced, backed off, asking for more time to consider the Resorts World plan.
“I believe your proposed project may be one of the best things that ever happened to our community — or the worst,’’ Regalado wrote Lim in November.
Wednesday at noon, Nov. 9; Joe’s Stone Crab, Miami Beach
The most famous casino magnate next to Donald Trump sat down to a plate of crab claws and a pitch. Across the table from Steve Wynn: Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower. She led a city already on the record opposing gambling, but Wynn wanted to build on municipal land if Florida changed its casino law.
“I think Miami Beach is the greatest site for a destination resort in the United States,’’ Wynn told reporters who had staked out Joe’s after being tipped off to the mogul’s presence.
As the only man besides Julius Caesar with his name atop a casino on the Vegas Strip, Wynn’s South Beach sojourn captured just how quickly South Florida was becoming a top target for the gambling industry.
Wednesday, Nov. 16; State Capitol, Tallahassee
Au said it twice in a spirited presentation that marked Genting’s official debut before Florida lawmakers, emphatically dismissing anti-casino arguments with the off-color remark.
Many were skeptical of Genting’s promises of 100,000 construction and operations jobs, and about $6 billion in extra spending by the three casino resorts allowed under the bill. At the same hearing, an executive with Las Vegas Sands, another global casino company pushing for a Miami site, called the numbers unrealistic.
But Au’s use of profanity before senators became the takeaway moment from the hearing, one that captured a feeling that Genting was misreading the politics needed to get a controversial bill passed.
State Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, who sponsored the casino bill, said she later told Genting executives they “have messed up the message’’ by making such an aggresive pitch.. She urged the company to “tone it down.”
Sands’ Vice President Andy Abboud said he thinks Genting hurt the entire industry: “They went too far.”
Monday morning, Dec. 12; Alvah Chapman Conference Center, Miami Dade College, Miami
Six months into Florida’s casino debate, there was little new left to say on either side. So the Beacon Council’s day-long forum on gambling unfolded as expected, with a tour through familiar arguments and criticisms.
Then came the surprise. When a fellow panelist criticized Genting for wanting the world’s largest casino in Miami, top Genting executive Christian Goode objected. “It’s not even close to being the largest,’’ Goode told the audience. “That’s simply false.”
It was the first time Genting tried to correct the world’s-largest claim, which was first raised eight weeks earlier in a press release by a top anti-gambling group, No Casinos. Goode’s denial emphasized what had become clear to even many of Genting’s original supporters: plans for Resorts World Miami were too big.
“It just didn’t fit in anybody’s vision about what this area should be like,’’ Eidson said. “It was pretty obvious that this gigantic size was going to require enormous changes in the roads. We had to worry about how to protect the Arsht Center and what it was going to do to the neighborhood around us.’’
Thursday andFriday, Feb. 2 and 3, 2012; State Capitol, Tallahassee
It was the night before the crucial vote on the gambling legislation in the House committee, and supporters were one vote away from a milestone.
Handicapping the outcome of the Friday vote flipped between a one-vote margin of passage and a one-vote margin of failure. Success would mean casino legislation had moved further along in the state Legislature than in previous years when Sands and other U.S. companies were quietly pushing for South Florida casinos.
“An issue like this is kind of a Rubik’s cube,” said Nick Iarossi, a lobbyist for Las Vegas Sands Corp. “Anytime you have that many special interests pushing in so many different directions it makes it difficult. Members would rather not deal with it. The “no’’ vote in a political year is the safe vote.”
In the end, sponsor state Rep. Erik Fresen, D-Miami, pulled the bill from consideration as the House’s conservative politics and the power of the anti-gambling coalition — led by the Florida Chamber pf Commerce and Walt Disney World — proved too strong to overcome. Also not helping the cause was timing of an election and redistricting year.
Bogdanoff had already succumbed to pressure from the parimutuel industry and given them complete parity, in order to get the bill passed through one senate committee.
Despite the negative and abrupt end, this year’s gambling debate garnered a higher-profile than in recent years. Genting upped the ante by putting its money on the table, investing $500 million in Miami real estate.
“Genting took something that was conceptual and made it more tangible,” said Justin Sayfie, a lobbyist representing the Westin Diplomat Hotel on the issue. “That investment certainly heightened awareness.”
There’s no doubt Genting will be back. The company has explored bypassing the Legislature and conducting a statewide petition drive to put a referendum on the ballot in 2014 giving Miami-Dade and Broward voters the power to approve resort casinos.
Jessica Hoppe, general counsel for Resorts World Miami, said the company believes year’s efforts “began an important statewide dialogue.”
“We attribute this progress to our significant commitment to Miami and our transparent approach to educating the public about our plans and galvanizing public support,” Hoppe said in a statement.
But what about everyone else?
“The fact that one committee couldn’t muster the votes doesn’t mean that the market has changed,” said Alan Feldman, senior vice president of public affairs for MGM Resorts International. “Florida is still an amazing market.”
Las Vegas Sands isn’t as sure.
“My client is re-evaluating whether Florida is real and whether the political appeal is here for destination resorts,” Iarossi said. “Nobody wants to be on a fool’s mission.”