News: MB Taxpayers Association Meeting Dissect’s The Pros and Cons of Gambling at Monthly Meeting

By Anne Newport Royall

The Miami Beach Taxpayers Association held their monthly general meeting on time and on schedule at the Menin Hotel Groups Shelborne property on Collins Avenue.  Over 140 taxpayers were in attendance, including Mark Whol, Denis Russ. Robert Wolfarth Sr. and Jr.  and Jr.’ s husband Alex Fernandez, Marion Del Vecchio, Historic Preservation Board Member Jo Manning, Fashion Week Miami Beach CEO Aaron Perry, Magic City Casino’s Izzy Havenick, Roger Abramson, Rick Kendle, 2013 Commission Candidate Elsa Urquiza, Seniors Advocate Stanley Shapiro, Shirley Martinelli, Orchard Park Neighborhood Association President Henry Lowenstein, Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee member Alan Fishman, Keith Menin, Tremont Towing’s Alex Diaz, Jr., trial attorney Paul Siegal and non-Miami Beach taxpayers, City Attorney Gary Held, former Miami-Dade Mayoral Candidate Marcello Llorente  of Kendall and Republican political operative Paul Yavits of Surfside.

Jessica Hoppe, general council and VP of Resorts World Miami attempted to introduce a presentation, but the computer and audiovisual equipment would not cooperate.  While images of the lavish planned resort sparkled on the screen behind her, Ms. Hoppe explained what her company had in mind.

The project would feature the largest column-free conference center in North America, 50 restaurants, 42 high-end retail establishments, 5,200 hotel rooms, a marina, ballrooms.  Seven million square feet in all.

And a basement casino.

While the Genting Group has made a substantial investment in South Florida with their stake in Norwegian Cruise Lines, their purchase of the Miami Herald waterfront site in cash and their buying of the mortgage on the next-door Omni and Hilton Hotel site, much of their plans are contingent on a friendly Florida Legislature reversing course and allowing casino operations open to anyone willing to make a minimum investment of  $2.5 billion dollars.

Currently sovereign nations (i.e. the Seminole Tribe) have gambling on their lands in seven locations around the State in a contract negotiated in 2009 with then-governor Charlie Christ that was intended to limit the expansion of gaming within the State. While the Seminoles can have slot machines, baccarat, chemin de fer and blackjack games, they are currently prohibited from conducting roulette or craps-styled games.

Genting, and its push to be one of three destination casino-resorts would change all that. Once the exclusivity held by the Tribe is breached, their payments to the State go to zero.

While the 20 year compact with the Tribe is in place the State receives an annual sliding scale of revenue based on the wins of the casino from 12% to 25%.

The Tribe makes a minimum payment of $150 million dollars a year to the State. 97% of that money goes to the Educational Enhancement Trust Fund of the Department of Education and the remaining three percent gets distributed by the legislature to communities affected by the Tribes casino operations.

Genting proposes to pay no more than a 10% tax on winnings.

If they get their way with the Florida Legislature, and a Destination Casino Resorts bill passes by March, they expect a license to be awarded by June of 2012.  With their control of the Omni and Hilton, a fully functioning casino would be in operation in downtown Miami by next November.

Construction on the Arquitectonica-master planned mega resort, with it’s own lagoon and sandy beach would be completed by 2014.

If there is no successful casino initiative this session, the Herald property will remain undeveloped for “15-20 years” Hoppe stated.

Developer Russell Galbut could not control his enthusiasm for the project. ‘We are the Taxpayers of Miami Beach!  How can we not support an investment of this magnitude in our community?”

Not everyone in the room was so eager to support the mega-development that Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said at this week Commission Meeting would give the County the ability to “pave the streets in gold.”

Roger Abramson was the first to address the white elephant in the white ballroom, “I am a loyal Miami Beach resident and a member of the Convention Center Advisory Board.  I am not certain how this is a great benefit to Miami Beach.  Is it going to be an economic draw to Miami Beach?  This is not Miami.” He said in a comment that did draw genuine applause.

Ms. Hoppe had not mentioned Miami Beach once in her presentation, before and said while she “appreciated the unique position of Miami Beach’” she could only offer the “hope” that her patrons would visit our shores.

Rick Kendle was next. “The site is wonderful!” he gushed, “Most of us are very supportive.” That comment drew many “don’t speak for me!” “Or me!” “Or me!” from the crowd.

Unfazed, Kendle continued, “What can we do to help you?  We had a streetcar once, can we make that connection again?  That idea did draw applause from the crowd.

“We are open to any ideas that come our way to integrate our resort to Miami Beach.” Hoppe responded, “You can help us by telling Tallahassee this is important to South Florida.”

Stanley Shapiro wanted to know if the Performing Arts Center would be compensated during the construction for their loss of revenue.  It was one of many questions that went unanswered.

Clotidle Luce, former member of the Design Review Board commented how different Miami Beach is from the mainland. “ We have a different culture here.  Our roots are in the preservation movement.  I am happy to see this Dubai-like project over there, on the other side of the bridge.”

Broker Lyle Stern expressed that he is “fearful about how this project will be staged and delivered,” concerned that the construction will “strangle Miami Beach from the mainland.”

Henry Lowenstein stood next, “I hate to put a damper on all the enthusiasm, but studies have shown that for every tax dollar produced from gambling, three dollars are needed for the social services” that the gambling effect has on the community. “How do you plan to deal with that?”

“Our goal is not to have people spend their last dollar or their mortgage payment in our casino” Hoppe offered.

“You took our time and came here unprepared to discuss what you will do to help Miami Beach,” said Alan Fishman directly to Hoppe. “In reality this is not good for Miami Beach.  You will take away from our hotels.  You will take away from our restaurants. You talk of building a beautiful linkage between the cruise ships and your resort, creating an insulated situation so people will not need to come to Miami Beach.”  Fishman wants to see the effects ameliorated by a commitment by Genting to fund, build and operate the Baylink from Miami to Miami Beach.  This quid pro quo drew supportive applause. “Give us something back. Give us Baylink!”

“Did you look at the Miami Beach Convention Center to put your casino?” asked former City employee Benetia Argos, “We have a convention center that, that, that…”

“Is in trouble” Galbut finished.

“Is in trouble,” Argos said.

Leonard Wein, who admitted being against the Baylink when it was proposed almost a decade ago, suggested a water taxi service as a way to link the two Cities, ‘People are fearful of being cut off from the mainland.” he said.

The owner of The Forge, Shareef Malnik, stated he was “excited about more people coming to our community, more people coming to my restaurant, but in Las Vegas they don’t want people to leave the hotel.  How will you open your hotel to us?” he asked

While Hoppe would not commit to anything directly benefiting Miami Beach, she did say that she hopes to bring local businesses into her program, and acknowledged that Miami Beach does not have the infrastructure to support a destination casino as envisioned by her company.

Neisen Kasdin, the attorney for the project took to the podium next.  After making a derogatory joke about how he was there to answer the tough questions because “Jessica got the easy questions because she is a girl” he dove right into Galbut’s question on how to take advantage of the development.

“Look at the Singapore model.  We are creating a bigger pie.”  To answer critics, Kasdin pointed that “gambling is already here and widespread.  The pari-mutuels have slots.  The Seminoles have a full casino, geared to locals.  In Singapore 70% of the gamblers are from out of town,” he said.

Regarding the concept of Baylink, Kasdin, who proposed the legislation for the streetcar while he was mayor, stated, “Genting will not be at the forefront of the issue because of the split political interests on Miami Beach.”

Lyle Stern addressed Kasdin personally, “I told you in Orlando, you are my write-in candidate for mayor” referring to the upcoming local election.

“Don’t tell that to Anna.” Kasdin quipped, referring to his wife.

Stern continued, “Please address these questions as if you were our mayor.  Before Genting asks or gets our support we need to see a full set of plans that deal with the traffic and I-395 and the Venetian Causeway.  We are gravely concerned about getting strangled.  And the $2.5 billion dollar minimum investment that was spoken about:  is that new money?  If so it makes it impossible for current facilities, like our Convention Center or the Fontainebleau, “ Stern warned.

“That investment is intended to lower the pool of investors.  There are planning reasons not to have the casino here (in Miami Beach). We are planning the traffic.  Kimbly-Horn has been hired and the plan will be well thought out.  You are not getting a pig in the poke.” Kasdin said.

Ben Alsop stood to address Kasdin. “I live in a small house and raise two children.  I don’t want to raise my children in Singapore or Las Vegas.  We are a small barrier island that promotes historic preservation passionately.  We promote education and culture.  We don’t dream of our children growing up to be cocktail waitresses or blackjack dealers.  We have a jewel here.  We should treat it as such.”

When asked by Mike Burke if Genting will use RDA (Redevelopment Agency) money to build the infrustructure required, Kasdin countered, “No CRA money will be used.”

Just the day before, the County Commission moved to gain more control over the Omni Community Redevelopment Area where the resort would sit. Currently all of the tax dollars generated there are slated to stay there, with the County giving back their portion to the City of Miami for the next twenty years.

That would pave a lot of streets downtown in gold.

The Taxpayers will take up the item again at the Board meeting scheduled for Wednesday, October 19 at 8:30 a.m. at the Shelborne.  All Miami Beach Taxpayers are invited to attend.  A resolution of support for the pr

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