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Montford: Gaming Legislation Will Affect North Florida...Somehow

Janice Fee

We’ve all heard the old saw about real estate – location, location, location. And as the start of the legislative session edges closer, it turns out location is a pretty important part of the state’s gaming conversation too.

Creek Entertainment in Gretna has become a hub for barrel racing recently. The track-slash-casino-slash-card room was expected to bring an economic boost to the rural region and create as many as 200 jobs. But thanks to a court ruling a few weeks ago, finding the state had improperly licensed the facility for quarter horse pari-mutuel racing, the facility’s future is in question and some are turning to the Legislature for answers. Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association President Lonny Powell wants lawmakers to define the term “horse racing.”

“It would for example define quarter horse racing as a race that’s done under American Quarter Horse Racing standards, which is on an actual race track with jockeys that weight themselves on scales that have horses that are tested for medications and that have been conducted as quarter horse races have been done for over 100 years. Not to horses running around barrels with no investment in grandstand infrastructure or anything else,” Powell said.

Meanwhile, another group of lawmakers is moving forward with a bill that would remove a requirement forcing pari-mutuels to host racing events in order to also offer cards rooms and slot machines. Fort Walton Beach Republican Representative Matt Gaetz says he’ll support almost any proposal which would decouple the two gaming activities.

“We should insist that if we’re able to have a bill that accomplishes the objective of decoupling we should not allow that bill to be hijacked by gambling special interests who would see it accomplish a different objective,” Gaetz said.

The measure in question would deal specifically with greyhound racing and does not, as it’s written now, cover horse racing. But, the idea of decoupling is also included in one of three massive gaming overhaul bills in the senate. Tallahassee Democratic Senator Bill Montford says it’s not clear yet how the Senate’s plans will affect horse racing or North Florida. But he says the one thing that is clear is that it will.

“As we sit here today, there’s still a tremendous number of questions floating around. We have just numeral (sic) options out there for us. I mean we have so many options, we meaning the state, that it’s sometimes hard to get your arms around them,” Montford said.

Once of the main issues the state’s proposal is expected to address is a plan for a destination resort casino. Right now the plan is to license two, both of which would be in South Florida. Some have suggested a major development like that could have a bigger economic impact in North Florida. They’ve raised concerns about a destination resort in Miami, in their words, “cannibalizing” the businesses surrounding it. After all, they say, Nevada was nothing but a desert until someone put a casino there. But Boston College Professor Richard McGowan, who’s studied the gaming industry, says that’s not a sound argument.

“Well remember Las Vagas was unique. They had a monopoly for 80, well, over 70 years. So, I mean Las Vegas is unique in that it’s probably still the only national destination for casinos in that people from all over the country go there. And its, for one of the better phrases, the mecca of casino gambling,” McGowan said.

McGowan says a location for a new casino needs a sizable population with money to spend. He says Miami has that, but even then, he’s not sure building a casino there will be the economic boon some people expect. Either way, Montford insists there’s not enough interest for a major casino in the north.

“One lady in Pensacola said, ‘I go to Biloxi. I gamble in Biloxi. I like Biloxi, but I don’t want Biloxi in my backyard. So, you leave Biloxi in Biloxi,” Montford said.

The Senate expects to tackle the three gaming bills the first week of session. Meanwhile, House Speaker Will Weatherford has been decidedly lukewarm about moving any major gaming legislation in his chamber.

Follow @Regan_McCarthy

Regan McCarthy is the Assistant News Director for WFSU Public Media. Before coming to Tallahassee, Regan graduated with honors from Indiana University’s Ernie Pyle School of Journalism. She worked for several years for NPR member station WFIU in Bloomington, Ind., where she covered local and state government and produced feature and community stories.

Phone: (850) 645-6090 | rmccarthy@fsu.edu

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