|By Douglas Hanks, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Nov. 10, 2011--Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn vaulted into the center of South Florida's gambling debate Wednesday by declaring the Miami Beach Convention Center site to be the region's ideal option for a massive new casino resort.
"I think that Miami Beach is the greatest site for a destination resort in the United States," Wynn said shortly after a lunch with the city's mayor, Matti Herrera Bower, and its manager, Jorge Gonzalez.
Of the roughly 50 acres of Miami Beach-owned land that includes the convention center, parking garages and city hall, Wynn called it the "best" and added: "It has a huge footprint. Adjacent to a convention center that can be expanded and improved. It's a site that is close to the ocean."
Wynn's sudden emergence on South Florida's budding casino scene promises to reshape a debate that is gripping political leaders statewide.
In the casino industry, only Donald Trump eclipses Wynn's fame and media coverage. A former CEO of Mirage Resorts who put his name atop his first signature Vegas hotel, Wynn also can boast of hometown roots, having spent his teenage years living in Miami Beach and working as a DJ in Hollywood.
"He's not a carpet-bagger," said Stuart Blumberg, the retired head of Miami-Dade's largest hotel group and leader of an advisory panel for the convention center. " I think Miami Beach is sitting in the catbird's seat now."
Until now, only two major players in the gambling world -- Malaysia's Genting and Wynn's rival, Las Vegas Sands -- were publicly laying claim to potential casino sites, and both are in downtown Miami.
Miami Beach is seen as a potential foe to a state bill designed to bring two casino resorts to Miami-Dade County. The city passed a resolution opposing gambling when its largest hotel, the Fontainebleau, began pursuing a casino several years ago. At a recent county hearing Gonzalez warned there weren't enough high-rolling gamblers "in the world" to fill the 5,200-room casino resort that Genting plans on the Miami waterfront.
Gonzalez described the Wynn lunch as merely a meeting to listen to an interested company. "Anyone who is smart is going to look at that site," he said. Bower said she wanted flexibility as Florida considers expanding its gambling laws and bringing a massive new casino across the bay in Miami. "We need to look at our options," she said after the lunch.
City Commissioner Jonah Wolfson blasted the mayor and city manager for mingling with Wynn. "The mayor and the manager should be out there opposing it, not entertaining it," he said of casino gambling. "I am extremely confident this is the wrong thing for our county."
Wednesday offered a glimpse of Miami Beach's potential as a major force in the casino industry. Wynn joined the recently reelected Bower and Gonzalez for lunch at Joe's Stone Crab, one of the state's most popular destinations for high-powered meals. After a plate of the South Beach establishment's famed crab claws (sans bib), Wynn stopped for interviews with the Herald and NBC Miami, which were tipped to the mogul's presence.
From there, Wynn and his wife boarded a black Cadillac Escalade for a trip to the New World Symphony and its rooftop garden. On the rooftop, the Wynn entourage -- which included local commercial broker Lyle Stern -- surveyed the roughly eight blocks of city-owned land comprising the convention center and surrounding facilities. From the ground, they were seen snapping photos and pointing across 17th Street to the location.
Wynn's interest in the site highlights how central a role the Miami Beach Convention Center might play as Miami-Dade considers allowing one or two new casino resorts into the area. Current plans call for renovating the center and adding a large hotel next door to jumpstart Miami Beach's convention business, but the hunt for tax dollars to pay for it was further thrown into question once the casino option surfaced.
Sands executives have pushed their plan to position downtown Miami as the region's new convention site, with a 1.5-million-square-foot expo at the heart of its casino hotel. Genting's plans include a sprawling ballroom and meeting areas for groups, but nothing as large as what's proposed by Sands.
Wynn -- whose Wynn Resorts operates 4,700 rooms in Vegas and 1,000 in Macau, China -- declined to detail his vision for Miami Beach. But he hinted at a new Wynn casino resort built alongside the city-owned expo center, presumably with an infusion of Wynn cash to complete the long-sought renovations. Asked if the Beach's 16,000 hotel rooms were enough to support a thriving convention industry, Wynn replied: "It's a start."
After the rooftop visit, Wynn said he was there to tour the new symphony building designed by his friend, Frank Gehry. He downplayed his lunch and visit, describing his presence as part of a preliminary look at South Florida as lawmakers decide to open up the state to the world's largest casino operators.
"I think this is more or less an exploratory conversation," Wynn said. "Where are we? Where do we go?"
Also Wednesday, another Vegas player added more details to its interest in a Florida casino.
"We're definitely looking," said Alan Feldman, senior vice president of public affairs for MGM Resorts International, which owns the largest casino in Vegas.
Feldman said MGM has looked at a half-dozen or more sites in South Florida, including the downtown site favored by Sands and the Sunny Isles Beach land owned by the Dezer family. He added that MGM is looking beyond South Florida, too, checking out options in Jacksonville and Tampa.
"We will compete aggressively for a license if that opportunity presents itself," he said.
The comments from MGM and Wynn cement what has been obvious since Genting purchased the Miami Herald's headquarters for $236 million in May: South Florida is now a top target for the global casino industry.
Wynn has already signaled his company's interest in a casino in the Miami area, telling analysts in a recent conference call that South Florida could emerge as a major gambling destination. He has toured the downtown site known as the Miami World Center, which sits within walking distance of the Genting site. On Wednesday, Wynn praised the downtown location as having "great land" but needing access to Biscayne Boulevard to work as a casino resort.
Howard Karawan, who once ran the Atlantis casino resort in Nassau for Kerzner and helped preside over the Fontainebleau Miami Beach's bid to be a casino brand, said Wynn would bring significant clout to the competition.
"There's nobody in the United States who comes close to what Steve Wynn brings to the table," said Karawan, once the chief operating officer for the Fontainebleau's parent company. "Steve has the ability to make a market."
Miami Herald staff writer Elaine Walker contributed to this report.
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