|By Douglas Hanks, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 04, 2011--The world's largest casino has brought some imposing political problems, too.
Six months after Genting Group announced plans for a massive casino resort on the Miami waterfront, the sheer magnitude of the project has proved an ample target.
Critics of downtown casinos, including Miami Heat owner Micky Arison and developer Armando Codina, point to traffic woes from the 5,200-room resort as a central problem. Even some supporters of bringing new casinos to Miami cite Genting's proposed Resorts World Miami as too much of a good thing.
And the lawmakers behind a bill that would allow Genting's $4 billion project now talk of a backlash against the company's campaign to win support through promises to transform Miami tourism with a gleaming resort of undulating towers and dozens of restaurants.
"The rendering that was released was helpful at first," Rep Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said of Genting's drawing of six towers designed to resemble a massive coral reef on Biscayne Bay. "Miami-Dade County was thirsty for a vision of economic development, and that hydrated them."
"But then," Fresen added, "it went from hydration to water boarding."
A Genting spokesman declined to make company executives available for an interview, saying they were busy in Tallahassee. Recently, Genting's top executive in Florida, Christian Goode, suggested the company might scale back the project detailed in architectural drawings. "That's our vision, but do we get there?" he asked. "Who knows?" This past week, Genting issued a statement that said in part: "We continue to collaborate and listen to stakeholders, Miami residents, and business and civic leaders at the state and local levels. The only thing set in stone is that Resorts World Miami will be a world-class destination resort."
Criticism of Genting from Fresen and the Senate co-sponsor of his bill, Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, reflects the challenging feat before the Malaysian company as it leads the charge for bringing major casinos to South Florida.
Though every major player in Las Vegas is now eyeing Miami, Genting is the only casino company publicly advocating a site and spelling out what a casino would actually look like. That's providing fodder for critics who want to link the plan to Vegas-style grandeur.
Genting executives "have messed up the message," Bogdanoff said during an appearance with Fresen at The Miami Herald Editorial Board. She said she has told Genting executives to pull back their public efforts because "you have created a huge problem for us from a messaging standpoint. You've taken the people you're trying to persuade, and you're scaring them."
On Friday, she said of the Genting plan: "It got people excited. But because of the size and scope, it gave naysayers the chance to twist a vision."
Stuart Blumberg, the retired head of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association, recently sent a blistering letter to state lawmakers, criticizing anti-gambling arguments by a state lodging group and endorsing well-regulated casino resorts. But he included an aside noting "the Genting proposal is out of scale for Miami."
But Genting representatives describe a disconnect between influencers and actual residents. A poll Genting released Thursday of 1,300 Miami-Dade voters found strong support for both casinos in general and the Resorts World project, which would rise on land currently occupied by The Miami Herald.
Asked about the casino bill, 59 percent said they support it while 34 percent oppose. Asked about a plan for a casino resort on the Herald property, 57 percent said they support it while 39 percent oppose.
"Everyone is reporting on what business leaders and other special interests want to see and wouldn't like to see," said Carlos Curbelo, a Miami-Dade School Board member and political consultant who is working for Genting. "Few people are focusing on what the people who live here would actually like to see."
People on both sides agree the Malaysian gambling giant electrified the issue in May when it paid $236 million for The Herald's waterfront headquarters and described plans for a "destination resort" unlike anything South Florida has ever seen. It quickly secured the neighboring Omni commercial complex next door, bringing its total land investment to about half a billion dollars.
The details came later, including plans for 800,000 square feet of casino space, four times larger than anything in Las Vegas. In rooms alone, it would be Florida's second-largest resort, behind the 5,700 rooms at Disney's All-Star Resorts in Orlando.
And Genting hinted the project might get even bigger. Goode, president of Resorts World Miami, last month confirmed that the company is interested in a 1,000-foot tower -- surpassing Miami's Four Seasons as the tallest building in Florida -- if it can receive a waiver on height restrictions from the Federal Aviation Administration.
"If we could go to 1,000 feet, would we look at it? Absolutely," Goode said.
With such a large resort on the drawing table -- it would have more than three times as many rooms as the Fontainebleau Miami Beach -- Genting also makes a case for an outsize economic impact.
Genting claims the casino bill under consideration would create 100,000 permanent jobs overall and nearly $2 billion in new revenue for Florida. Resorts World Miami alone would account for 19,000 permanent jobs, the company predicts, enough to unseat the University of Miami as Miami-Dade's largest employer.
The company hasn't yet released any study behind the calculations. But consultants hired by Genting have been using the company's plans for the Miami resort as a template for how much economic activity a South Florida casino would produce under the proposed bill.
Genting hired Spectrum Gaming Group in Linwood, N.J., for a casino study, and the company issued a one-page letter saying three Florida resorts could produce about $6 billion in gambling revenue each year -- a little more than casinos on the Las Vegas Strip generate now. That math was based on not only Genting's 5,200-room Resorts World Miami opening, but two others of the same size.
"We did assume three Genting-style destinations," said Michael Pollock, the firm's managing director.
But as elected leaders in Tallahassee and South Florida consider the future of gambling, advocates of the bill caution against assuming the Genting vision will survive the political process.
"Maybe 50 or 60 percent of that will ever get approved," Fresen, a land-use consultant in Miami, said of Genting's proposed resort. Added Bogdanoff: "What you see as a rendering is just that."
Miami Herald staff writers Patricia Mazzei and Elaine Walker contributed to this report.
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