|By Elaine Walker, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Nov. 30, 2011--Depending on your perspective, destination resort casinos will either cure all that ails the South Florida economy or send us on the road to ruin.
Six months ago the community was abuzz over Genting's $236 million purchase of The Miami Herald property to create a destination resort that would lure tourists from Asia and Latin America. We quickly became the popular girl at the dance being courted by U.S. casino magnates like Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson, all checking potential sites around South Florida.
It looked like the tide might have turned in Florida, where voters have defeated casino gambling on statewide initiatives for decades. But then in the last month, the tide started to shift. As anticipation builds toward a legislative debate over the issue in 2012, community leaders are growing increasingly divided on whether this is the answer for our economy.
For every group that's in favor -- Latin Builders Association -- there's another that's opposed -- Florida Chamber of Commerce.
"It's disingenuous to say we shouldn't have gambling, when it's already here," said Bernie Navarro, president of the Latin Builders. "Let's create something with economic benefits."
Many of those leading the fight against it are no strangers to this issue: Businessmen Norman Braman and Armando Codina, along with former politicians Bob Graham and Dan Gelber.
"We're sacrificing our long-term future for a very short-term advantage that will offer very little economic opportunity for Floridians," said Graham, the former governor and senator who vows to support the fight to defeat the proposal. "It is a mirage to think that if casino gambling is established in Dade and Broward counties that it will be isolated. It's not just South Florida defining its future, it's the state determining its economic future."
Others joining the anti-gambling chorus, include developers Marty Margulies and Tony Goldman and Beacon Council President Frank Nero. They see a casino as derailing progress Miami has made, including growing a biomedical industry and an arts community.
"This is just going to destroy the moral fiber of this community," Margulies said. "The leaders of this community need to stand up and say, 'We don't want gambling and all the social problems that go with it.' "
If gambling is to happen, supporters are going to need to find a way to gain the endorsement of a growing group of business and political leaders who are willing to consider gambling -- with certain caveats.
These are the people who aren't philosophically opposed to gambling but fear Miami's turning into Las Vegas or Atlantic City.
"The worst thing that could happen to Miami is for us to become the next gambling city of the Americas," said condo developer Jorge Perez, who is undecided on gambling but vows to oppose the prospect of two casinos downtown. "People are going to be weighing the short-term economic benefit of a mass casino project in downtown versus the probable negative impact in the long term."
Perez is one of many worried about the impact two nearby casinos would have on traffic and surrounding businesses. Vegas Sands and Wynn have looked at the Miami World Center site, only blocks from the Genting site on Biscayne Bay.
Leaders of the Adrienne Arsht Center have voiced similar concerns. Ditto for Miami Heat owner and Carnival Cruise Lines CEO Micky Arison. He expects traffic nightmares that will turn off basketball fans and generally disrupt Miami's urban revival. Even Mayor Tomas Regalado has recently hedged his support for Genting's proposal.
Jeff Soffer, owner of Fontainebleau Miami Beach, fears that the way the casino bill is written, it will have a major impact on his business, currently the largest hotel in the county.
"When you have a casino downstairs you can sell rooms for less to get people to spend money," said Soffer, who has long envisioned a casino for Fontainebleau. "This will drop room rates in South Florida by 50 percent and put thousands of people out of work."
At the heart of many objectors is the proposed size of Genting's Resorts World Miami. As the plans stand, Genting hopes to build the world's largest casino, 5,200 rooms and more than 50 restaurants and bars. But Genting leaders acknowledge that could change.
"That's what our vision is, but do we get there? Who knows?" said Christian Goode, president of Resorts World Miami. "It's still a work in progress. The market dictates what we will end up building."
Las Vegas Sands' position is that only one destination resort casino should be approved initially to give the area time to absorb the project before expanding. The bill could yield up to two for Miami-Dade County and one for Broward.
"Start slow and be cautious," Nick Iarossi, a lobbyist for Las Vegas Sands, said Tuesday at a Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce panel discussion. "Bigger is not better."
Even some who support casino gambling admit it's not their first choice. But with unemployment standing at 10 percent, some business leaders are willing to accept the tradeoffs.
"The community needs a shot in the arm in a big way and gambling would do that," said Raul Valdes-Fauli, president and chief executive of Professional Bank and Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce board member. "I wish it were some other vehicle for job creation, but this is what's here. I'm willing to swallow the bitter pill of gambling to help the economy."
Genting has said it expects to create 50,000 construction jobs and 100,000 permanent ones.
Yet some civic leaders aren't convinced about the accuracy of those numbers and want them fully vetted by independent consultants, before this issue is decided.
"The promise of this being the economic salvation is an awful big load for a casino to carry," said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, which has not taken a position on gambling. "Three major destination resorts will change the character of who South Florida is. We are not ready to make that decision. There is no reason something has to be done right away. There are a lot of question that need to be answered."
Most of Miami's major civic groups have yet to take an official position on the gambling proposal. That list includes the Beacon Council, Greater Miami Convention & Visitor's Bureau, Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association and the Downtown Development Authority.
"If gambling is done right, it can be a catalyst for economic development, but if it's done wrong there can be a down side," said Alyce Robertson, executive director of the Miami Downtown Development Authority, which hasn't taken a position. "It's important that they remember they are part of an overall community and take into consideration their neighbors."
As the legislative session nears, there's growing concern about the gravity of this decision.
Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale and the bill's co-sponsor, warned Tuesday that the 2012 legislative leadership is likely to be more receptive than the group that will follow.
"To me it's now or never," said Bogdanoff, who fears the wrong kind of gambling would continue to grow in Florida. "Five years from now we'll become the No. 1 gaming state because nobody is going to do anything."
Miami Herald Staff Writer Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report.
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