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Florida Legislators Ponder Multibillion dollar Casino Resorts; 
Las Vegas Casino Execs Make Pitch to Open 6 Resorts

By Josh Hafenbrack, Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

March 12, 2010--TALLAHASSEE -- Multibillion-dollar hotel resorts with casino gambling, celebrity chefs and luxury shopping.

It could all come to Florida -- if the state wants to cash in on its image as a sun-soaked haven for tourists and authorize sprawling, Vegas-style casino resorts, gambling executives told lawmakers Thursday.

Executives from Las Vegas Sands, which operates the Venetian and Palazzo on the Vegas strip, flew to Tallahassee to pitch lawmakers on their vision: Four to six gambling destinations, each costing $2 billion or more to build, that would beckon gamblers from several continents.

They showed lawmakers slides of their gambling facilities in Vegas, Singapore and China, which include thousands of table games and slot machines, restaurants by Emeril and other TV chefs and theaters that house Phantom of the Opera and the Blue Man Group.

Andy Abboud, vice president for communications at Las Vegas Sands, said they want to "build something spectacular. There's only a handful of places left where we could spend billions of dollars on a resort -- Japan, Florida, maybe Europe. We look at is as a worldwide market, a worldwide destination."

Turning that into reality will be politically difficult and could take years, but lawmakers gave the idea a receptive audience Thursday during a two-hour hearing.

Lawmakers are meeting for their annual, 60-day lawmaking session -- and gambling is a top priority. Legislators are trying to hammer out a revenue-sharing agreement with the Seminoles that could bring in $150 million a year from the existing tribe-run casinos. On Thursday, the House gambling committee learned there's a potentially more lucrative path: Vegas-in-Florida casinos.

The Legislature's chief economist, Amy Baker, calculated the state could authorize eight such resort casinos and generate at least $2.3 billion in up-front licensing fees. One approach, she said, would be an auction in which gambling operators try to outbid each other for the right to build full-scale casinos.

Florida's gambling industry now includes 27 pari-mutuel tracks and frontons, which have racing and poker. But blackjack and dice games, such as craps and roulette, are outlawed. And so are slots everywhere but Broward and Miami-Dade counties, where voters authorized them in local referendums.

Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, said she supports an open bidding process for a few resort casino licenses, as long as they're not all concentrated in one market. Voters in each county would authorize them, she said.

There's "no question" Florida could create an international gambling market, she added. "Walk down Fort Lauderdale beach. Where are the people from? Asia, Canada, South America."

The Vegas executives told lawmakers Florida should limit the casino market to six sites and set the price at $100 million each. After a three-year construction phase, the casinos would pay a 10 percent tax rate on gambling games that would include slots, blackjack, poker, craps and roulette.

After the hearing, Abboud said his company is particularly interested in Fort Lauderdale and Miami. The area could draw conventions and large business gatherings that help boost profits, he said.

"We're here to offer a long-term fix and provide long term, stable revenue for the state," Abboud said.

However, such a broad gambling expansion faces long odds in Florida's Republican-led Legislature.

Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said legislators don't want to suddenly overturn "a century history of being a family friendly, Mickey Mouse state for being a Vegas-style state."

Still, he added, "the time is coming for Florida to step back, catch its breath and figure out where it wants to go. We can't continue to function as a piecemeal [gambling] state."

One unknown: how new casinos would affect the state's existing tracks and frontons. While the Vegas executives said they cater to a different market, pari-mutuels would face a severe disadvantage, with a tax rate potentially three or four times higher than the new resorts.

Then there's the Seminole tribe. Jim Allen, chairman of the Hard Rock, said he hopes Florida would consider expanding gambling in a way that grows the market for everyone, rather than undercutting current sites. That would depend on how new gambling laws are written and what incentives are given to investors, he said.

Either way, the Seminole tribe will be fine, he said. In 2008, Florida's Indian casinos registered 19 percent revenue growth despite the recession, making $1.9 billion in profits. The Seminole tribe has seven casinos, including the Hard Rock sites in Hollywood and Tampa.

"If the state wants to put 10 casinos in South Beach, we would understand," Allen said. "The tribe will continue to survive and do well."

Staff Writer Doreen Hemlock contributed to this story.


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