|By Douglas Hanks, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Nov. 07, 2011--The South Florida lawmakers behind a bill to bring massive casino resorts to the region blasted opposition from business groups for fearing competition, noting Walt Disney World put many attractions out of business when it transformed Florida tourism in the 1970s.
"It blows my mind that a business group would say competition is a bad thing,'' State Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Republican representing Fort Lauderdale, told an audience of business executives Monday morning. "We are a free-market country.''
Her comments at a Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce forum came against a backdrop of more opposition from the hospitality industry to allowing large casino resorts in Florida. The Florida Retail Federation joined the state hotel and restaurant association in opposing the plan, along with the Florida Chamber of Commerce. Disney and Orlando's theme-park industry are seen as a driving force behind the opposition in Tallahassee, setting up a battle between Florida's top tourism draw and the global casino industry.
A top official with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association described the casino plan as a threat to the state's tourism industry, with smaller businesses sure to fail once the new competition arrives.
"The expansion of gambling will do nothing but harm existing businesses, especially in the hospitality industry,'' Richard Turner, the association's general counsel, told the audience. "There are only so many discretionary dollars to be spent."
The local Chamber hasn't taken a stand on gambling, but is expected to by the time the state Legislature convenes in January, said Penny Shaffer, a local healthcare executive and the Chamber's chairman.
A bill sponsored by Bogdanoff and Erik Fresen, a Republican representative from Miami, would allow three casino resorts in Florida as long as they cost at least $2 billion to construct. While they could go anywhere, the bill would only allow them in jurisdictions that had already voted to expand gambling.
Because Broward and Miami-Dade meet that criteria already, the bill is seen as giving those two counties first crack at landing the resorts.
Genting, the largest casino operator in Southeast Asia and the United Kingdom, has spent about $500 million buying up land on the Miami waterfront, including the Miami Herald's current headquarters. It has announced plans for the world's largest casino there, with 5,200 hotel rooms, about 50 restaurants, and more than three times as much gambling space as the largest casino in Las Vegas.
The competition issue framed much of the back-and-forth during the morning panel at the Jungle Island theme park. Isadore Havenick, whose family owns the Magic City Casino, built alongside the Flagler Dog Track under state law allowing expanding gambling at race tracks and jai alai venues, complained the bill would put his establishment out of business. The bill lets the new casinos pay just 10 percent of gambling revenue to Florida, while racetracks pay 35 percent.
Bogdanoff said the Senate would likely level out the tax rates -- or provide "parity" for racetracks and jai-alai sites -- before approving a casino bill.
Fresen referred to trade groups opposing the bill as "anti-competition" organizations. And Bogdanoff became most animated in her remarks when addressing business groups against the bill. She recalled looking at pictures of shuttered attractions across Florida, and noted Disney was responsible for their extinction.
"Nobody was screaming when Disney came to town,'' she told the audience of about 250 people.
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