The move to approve destination resort casinos in South Florida is unlikely to pass the state legislature when that body reconvenes next month, state lawmakers have confided to Miami Beach leaders.
Based on assessments provided to him and Miami Beach Mayor Matti Bower during their trip to Tallahassee last week to meet with state legislators on the matter, City Manager Jorge Gonzalez pronounced the odds of passage for legislation that would authorize the casinos as “very, very small and getting smaller.”
Gonzalez’s remarks came at Wednesday night’s Mayor on the Move Q-and-A with the public at the newly-refurbished Miami Beach Botanical Gardens, during which both the mayor and he addressed the casino issue in relation to how it might affect the city’s efforts to replace its aging convention center. It was the mayor’s first Move meeting with the public since her Nov. 1 reelection.
An audience of over 100 residents – which included notables as former city commissioner Nancy Liebman, community activist Gabrielle Redfern, and recent mayoral candidate Dave Crystal – heard Bower and Gonzalez reiterate their opposition to the proposal to open up the region to three – possibly more – gaming resorts.
“I am personally, philosophically opposed to gambling,” Mayor Bower attested. If given the green light, casinos here “would affect the welfare of every citizen of Miami Beach.”
The bill about to wind its way through the Florida Legislature, co-sponsored by state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff (R-Fort Lauderdale) and Rep. Erik Fresen (R-Miami), has galvanized the opposition of city leaders, who fear devastating effects on the Beach’s hospitality industry, specifically, and its economic vitality, in general.
Bower said “we have to have knowledge” about all facets of any proposed casino plan, both the pros and cons, because citizens may have to eventually vote to approve or reject any such plan in a future city-wide, or county-wide, referendum. She and Gonzalez, just back from Washington, D.C., to meet with the area’s congressional delegation the day before, have met with people from all sides of the issue in an effort to stay better informed and prepare for all possibilities.
The mayor’s recent lunch with one Las Vegas casino entrepreneur said to be interested in the city’s convention center site piqued one questioner’s interest, and the mayor was quick to defend her meeting.
“I had a wonderful lunch with Steve Wynn. I, as the mayor, will never say no to meeting with someone. There was no reason for me to say no to him.
“He thinks Miami Beach is the best place in the world. He was raised here, and he loves it here.”
Gonzalez’s PowerPoint presentation for the audience bulleted some of the administration’s key goals and timetable for the convention center renovation, beginning with the City Commission’s initial toe-dip into the competitive bidding waters from prospective center renovators. He said the Commission will be asked in January to proceed with that process.
He drew laughs when he told the room that “I’m not a betting man” but that the mayor and he were told by state lawmakers in Tallahassee that the casinos bill is unlikely to muster the needed votes to pass. Statehouse leaders are “indicating it’s a difficult sell.”
But were it to pass, and casinos were to become a new fixture in the county, especially the proposed resort by the Genting Group at the Miami Herald site across the bay, the Beach’s ability to remain competitive as a convention-attracting magnet would be seriously imperiled.
Genting’s proposal would produce “probably the world’s biggest casino, simply stated,” Gonzalez declared, and would establish a resort consuming 800,000 square feet – “about 16 football fields”. The largest such resort in Las Vegas, he noted, is only about 100,000 square feet in total space.
If built, he added, Genting’s resort “becomes the world’s largest casino, no question.”
Gonzalez also revealed that Genting has been in talks with the Miami-Dade School Board about the possibility of acquiring School Board properties in the vicinity of their Herald site and is “making progress on their plans.” The Malaysia-based gaming resort has already invested $400 million, according to the city manager, $236 million of which went to purchase the 13.9-acre Herald site.
If Genting succeeds, their mega-hotel would spell “disaster for Miami Beach,” Gonzalez warned. “None of the hotels we have here [in Miami Beach] could compete with a destination resort.”
Genting’s resort, he said, would be one where “everyone goes in and you don’t leave until you’ve given the last dime,” sucking potential revenue away from any other hotels and restaurants, particularly those on the Beach.
Both Gonzalez and Bower fear the attention that the casino issue is monopolizing is a “distraction” from the administration’s long-term goal of bringing the convention center, once the nation’s fourth largest but now only the 27th, up to modern-day standards, thus enabling it to effectively compete with other cities’ convention centers for a share of the lucrative convention business.
Gonzalez decried criticism of Miami Beach’s center as being decrepit, old, and unusable as “not true.” The center has hosted 118 events this year, he noted, which is well within the 60-70% occupancy range that is regarded within the convention industry as a healthy occupancy
The convention center is “operating well,” he pronounced, but “what we want is to target the higher end shows” because consumer shows – such as the jewelry and antique ones which the center has lots of – are not as revenue-rich to the city. Thus, an “enhancement and expansion” is now necessary.
Anti-casino activists present solicited contact information from attendees interested in adding their names to sign-up clipboards, but beyond that, the room was absent of any highly-charged emotion for either side of the casino debate, except for occasional applause for Bower’s, Gonzalez’s, and some questioners’ expressions of their opposition to casinos.