Gambling debates heats up town hall

Jan 31, 2012

The Florida casino gambling debate rages on, not just at the State Capitol, but also on the luncheon speaker circuit.  Tom Flanigan reports hundreds of Capitol Tiger Bay Club members were treated to a casino pro-and-con showdown Tuesday.

Prominent Tallahassee lobbyist Nick Iarossi spoke in favor of the bills allowing destination resorts in Florida.  Not surprising as his client is the Las Vegas Sands Corporation.  It presently operates casinos in Las Vegas, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, China and Singapore.  As a result of destination gaming, Iarossi says far more large scale meetings and conventions are happening in those places.  The same, he says, could happen in South Florida.

“Miami actually ranks forty-first in the number of conventions and trade show attendees, which for an international city that has all the entertainment offerings and hotel infrastructure, there’s really no excuse for that, except for they do not have a destination-type resort and they’re having to compete with places like Las Vegas, like New York, like Chicago.”

But the meeting and convention business, while very important to Florida’s overall hospitality industry, pales in comparison to the state’s regular tourist traffic.  Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, says that’s the market that would be at risk if destination resorts are built.

“Our concern, quite frankly, is that once you change a brand, it’s changed forever.  Once you allow these companies to invest tens-of-millions of dollars advertising the following: ‘Come to Florida where the largest casinos in the world are,’ that changes our brand forever. And what does that do to the mix of who’s coming to Florida now?  What does that do to our small businesses?”

Of course, casino proponents say that increasing business is the main rationale for building casinos in the first place.  Iarossi says the economic upside will be dramatic and immediate.

“This proposal can create tens of thousands of jobs.  Some state economists in Florida estimate up to 100,000 new jobs are created by three destination resorts and the six billion dollars in capital infusion that it would create.”

Casino opponent Wilson says Iarossi is looking at the wrong numbers.

“The gambling interests had put out a study a few years ago and they talked about the benefits of it.  And they said this will work except – in fine print – in places like Florida where there’s already an established tourism market and that came from the gambling interest’s own study.”

Iarossi insists destination resorts would simply build upon what already makes Florida an attractive place…
“Florida is a wonderful place to come see because of its beaches.  It’s a wonderful place to come see because of Orlando and the tourist attractions that we have throughout.  This is one spoke in the entertainment wheel that will help drive new visitation to help those businesses both in the hotel and restaurant industry and the surrounding businesses that would service these destination resorts.”

But the Chamber’s Mark Wilson begs to differ.  He cites the experience of Atlantic City, New Jersey.  It was a very popular tourist destination long before the arrival of the casinos beginning in the late 1970s.  Since then, Wilson says it’s been all downhill for non-casino businesses in that town.

“Forty percent of restaurants and hotels in the first year - forty-percent of all the restaurants and hotels in Atlantic City -  closed down within one year of the casino opening.  Forty-percent!  One-third of all of the retail establishments closed their doors after one year of the casino being opened.”

And so on, back and forth for the better part of an hour.  There are other considerations in the casino debate as well.  Such as which of two competing bills might gain more traction in the legislature?  One would authorize up to three destination resorts only in Dade and Broward counties.  The other would allow such resorts in any county whose voters agreed to have them.  Then there’s the matter of how this might affect the Seminole gaming compact, which gives the tribe the exclusive right to certain casino-style games for another two years.  And finally, in an election year, there’s the question of how many lawmakers may want to jump into an issue that could be a losing proposition no matter how they play their cards.