In Fla. Casino Fight, All Bets Are Off

An international resort company wants to build a huge casino on the shore of Biscayne Bay, where the Miami Herald now stands.

Journalists aren’t sentimental but they do appreciate irony. Having editorially crusaded for decades against opening South Florida to Vegas-style gaming, the Herald will soon be humbly relocated to make way for an extravagant $2 billion palace of wagering.

Given the wheezing state of the newspaper industry, we should have negotiated with the buyers to save a little corner of their casino for our newsroom. The weekly take from one row of slot machines would probably cover the payroll for a dozen first-rate reporters and editors.

The casino project by Genting Americas would be one of three mega-resorts permitted in Florida under a bill filed in the Legislature. The deal is no slam-dunk, even though the gambling industry has enough dough to paper the halls of the state capitol.

Here’s the glitch. There’s this little outfit up in Orlando that doesn’t like the casino plan one bit. Disney is the name, and it has the money, the lobbyists and the insider connections to fight back and win.

Disney sees big-time gambling as big-time competition. One argument is demographic — the people who’d fly all the way to Miami just to play craps aren’t necessarily the same people who’d shlep their kids up to the Magic Kingdom. At least, they won’t do it on the same trip.

The counter argument is that, like the major resorts in Vegas and Nassau, South Florida mega-casinos would market heavily toward a wholesome family experience. All sorts of cool distractions would be available for Mom and the kids, while Dad fritters away their college fund at the roulette wheel.

It’s a free country, and people can spend their money however wisely or stupidly they choose. Gamblers inevitably lose, which is why casino companies are so rich and Disney is worried.

A tourist who checks out of Genting’s resort after a few days of recreational wagering might not have much left in his pockets — or on his Visa card — to take the family on an Epcot adventure. Ditto for that broom ride through the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal.

Every dollar spent in the casino is a dollar unspent elsewhere. That’s why opposition to the casinos now includes the Florida Retail Federation, the Restaurant and Lodging Association, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and basically the entire theme-park industry.

Gambling’s top political ally, state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, recently said: “It blows my mind that a business group would say competition is a bad thing.”

Apparently, the Fort Lauderdale Republican dwells in some weird parallel universe where Ford salesmen are elated to see Honda open a dealership down the street.

Last week, Genting Americas traveled to Tallahassee to wow lawmakers with its plans for Resorts World Miami. A top executive from the firm made the kind of sky-high promises that might charitably be described as fanciful.

The president, Colin Au, predicted the casino bill would produce $1.7 billion in state revenues, along with 100,000 permanent jobs. A study commissioned by Genting said income from the combined three gambling resorts could be as high as $6 billion annually — more than all the joints on the Vegas strip put together.

Floridians accustomed to preposterous hype will hoot at these numbers. Even Bogdanoff cautioned the gaming company not to go overboard with its pitch.

The gap between reason and whimsy is vast. A recent report by state economists projected that the new casinos might generate $980 million in gaming revenues, which is only about $5.1 billion shy of Genting’s sunny forecast.

Anticipating pushback from the theme parks, Au also guaranteed nonstop airline service to Miami from Asia, where the company is based and where much of the gambling business is expected to come from.

He added: “I’m even prepared to guarantee Disney 100,000 tickets that we will sell for them in our resort.”

What Au didn’t say, and will never say, is that Genting’s casinos have the same basic mission as Disney World and Universal: to separate tourists from as much of their money as possible before they go anyplace else.

By the time they get to Orlando, Dad might have a theme-park ticket in his wallet but little else. On the bright side, spending the night in a minivan at the Simba parking lot will be an unforgettable bonding experience for the whole family.

(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)

(c) 2011, The Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.


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