Gaming On Our Future?

MAYORAL CANDIDATES NOT SUPPORTERS OF EXPANDED GAMBLING IN MIAMI BEACH.

It’s been an issue in South Florida – and statewide – since before uber-development group Genting began eyeing a massive bayfront property for development of a destination casino resort and the Florida Legislature once again began exploring means by which to bring a bigger piece of the gambling sector’s wealth to the Sunshine State. The potential for casino gambling coming to a neighborhood near you might be off the political table for the moment, but it remains lurking in the shadows as it has for decades with few confident it won’t become an issue again.

In Miami Beach, it’s been a particularly contentious issues, with advocates on each side, but a general expressed aggregate opinion of thumbs-down to the idea of a Miami Beach-based casino.

However, while neither of the three leading candidates to supplant Matti Bower as Miami Beach mayor are making gambling in Miami Beach an election issue, at least one worries that a back door might have been left open for gaming to come to the heart of the city when and if the political winds shift.

“I am aware of expressed interest from developers and [casino] operators,” said mayoral candidate and entrepreneur Philip Levine. “I stated from the outset that the ballot question concerning the convention center was flawed for a variety of reasons: in addition to vesting property rights of public land to a private developer, the ballot question does not include the cost of the project, nor does it include a provision to ban gambling/casinos in the renovated convention center.”

In fielding questions related to the potential return of the casino issue, Levine voiced aloud what other activists in town have quietly been worrying about since debate over the convention center redevelopment plan took shape – that the convention center site might be eyed by casino interests as a possible site should the state legislature move ahead with various incarnations of pro-gaming legislation.

Earlier this summer, in a controversial and conflict-laden political decision, the Miami Beach City Commission selected South Beach ACE as master developer for the massive convention center project, which will include at the minimum, a renovated center, ballroom, convention center hotel and both commercial and public-use components. Other details are in negotiation and Levine – a critic of the convention center process – said he worries that this back door might well be open to consideration, possibly long after the current city commission has moved on.

Levine makes his position on a potential Miami Beach casino quite clear.

“I am adamantly opposed to the introduction of gambling on Miami Beach,” Levine said. “The number one priority of Miami Beach city government should be the residents of our great city, and if gambling is introduced on Miami Beach, it will be detrimental to the quality of life of Miami Beach residents and small businesses. Studies show that that new casinos have a direct correlation with increases in crime, including: rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and automobile theft. Moreover, casinos cannibalize existing local businesses and are purposefully designed to be self-contained and include dining, entertainment and gambling under one roof so that patrons do not leave the casino premises. Miami Beach is a world-class city, and ultimately much of the social cost of a casino will burden our city government; which will be forced to allocate limited funds to improve our transportation infrastructure, regulatory expenses and public safety.”

Levine said he has not been approached by gaming interests since he launched his campaign. “However, the law/lobbying firm where my main opponent is employed and where he has a questionable record of trying to lobby the City of Miami Beach represents gaming interests in front of the Florida State Legislature.”

The opponent Levine referenced is Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Gongora, who didn’t take the bait in reference to the sizeable law firm for which he works. But Gongora did point to his legislative record and his position on the topic overall.

“This debate has been going on for decades,” Gongora told SunPost. “My general position is to support the resolution against casino gambling that my colleagues and I voted on in 2011 that was passed unanimously. I know that our biggest asset is our beach and that will always be our biggest draw for tourists. Miami Beach is doing well without legalized gambling.”

Gongora said there are no circumstances under which he believes he would ever support a contrary position. He also said he is unaware of any parties recently investigating the possibility, although like many other city leaders, he did meet with industry representatives in the past.

“In 2011 I met with representatives from the casino/gambling industry at city hall, as did most if not all of my colleagues at the time,” Gongora said. “As a commissioner, I have always had an open door policy. I met with them to see what they thought they had to offer to Miami Beach.”

That commission passed the anti-casino resolution the same year.

Both Gongora and Levine say they oppose the expansion of gaming overall.

“I am adamantly opposed to the expansion of gambling in Miami-Dade County and the State of Florida,” Levine said.

Said Gongora, “As your commissioner and future mayor, I will continue to monitor very closely what is occurring in Tallahassee with regards to casino gambling and how that may impact Miami Beach.”

Steve Berke, activist, former entertainer and another mayoral candidate responded to questions by pointing out he doesn’t feel casino gambling is an issue for the election this year.

“Honestly, I don’t see casinos being an issue in 2013,” Berke said. “Two years ago, it seemed like there was a chance that the Malaysian gaming company, Genting, was going to build a massive casino and convention center at the site of the Miami Herald building. Under those specific circumstances, I believed Miami Beach would have needed to put a small casino in the hotel at our convention center’s site, to be able to compete with Genting’s convention center. However, those plans have been shelved as it seems very unlikely that there will be gambling in Florida — so, that being the case, I think the building of a Miami Beach casino is moot.”

Berke didn’t respond to general gambling and Florida/South Florida questions; instead, pointing to his statement that it was not an election issue this year.

The final mayoral candidate, Raphael Herman, could not be reached for comment.

But for Gongora and Levine, their positions seem clear.

“I am exceedingly skeptical that there is an upside to adding a casino in Miami Beach,” Gongora said.

About Michael W Sasser

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