By Gray Rohrer; Published November 7, 2011
The Florida Retail Federation announced Monday it will oppose attempts to place large casinos in South Florida, adding to the contingent of business groups standing against those efforts.
It shares the fears of the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade County’s economic development arm, that the large destination resort casinos envisioned by HB 487 and SB 710 would merely “cannibalize” the existing dollars in South Florida by drawing economic activity away from local shops and businesses instead of pulling in high-rolling foreign tourist dollars as casino operators contend.
“For Florida retailers, the short-term employment gains of expanding casino gambling would not be worth the long-term damage we might inflict on Florida’s family-friendly brand. The Florida Retail Federation is opposing the casino legislation, and we are encouraging our members to contact their legislators directly with their concerns,” FRF president and CEO Rick McAllister said in a released statement.
Other powerful business interests such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Walt Disney Co. also are voicing opposition to the bills, claiming the casinos will draw away from the family-friendly nature of Central Florida’s tourist attractions.
But bill sponsors Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, and Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, assert their intention is not to expand gaming, but to more strictly regulate it. Most of their 11- page bill is dedicated to the establishment of a gaming commission that will set and enforce rules for gaming operations.
When asked why they don’t simply support stand-alone legislation to eliminate internet sweepstakes cafes — the storefronts that offer slot-like games and are decried by social conservatives opposed to all gaming — Bogdanoff said last week that would be a “political statement and not political reality.”
Meanwhile, Florida’s existing gaming operators – the Seminole Tribe and pari-mutuel owners – are also decrying the bill, but the horse racing industry is more concerned about a recent license issued to Gretna Racing to run barrel races – horse races around a course of barrels set up in a rodeo-like track.
Barrel races are not a traditional event for gamblers, and horse racing groups have filed an administrative challenge with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering over the license, which they contend is a screen to operate a card room and slot machines. The barrel races use fewer horses, pay out much less money (the Gretna track has promised a $38,000 prize payout over races through December and January, compared to the $6 million payouts some traditional horse racing tracks pay out over the course of a year) and employ fewer people, so operators need less overhead to meet state requirements for horse races in order to run card games and slots.
“This could be the end of our industry,” said Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “It’s just a get-rich-quick scheme. Once you run and you’re open, you can open a card room almost immediately – and now they want slots.”
The Gadsden County Commission voted last month to place a countywide referendum to allow slots at the Gretna track on the presidential preference primary Jan. 31, when Republicans will make their selection for their party’s nomination. As of Monday, the 3,805 registered Republicans in Gadsden County make up 13 percent of the electorate in the rural Panhandle county. Since Florida has closed primaries, the slot machine referendum and a separate county tax referendum would be the only items up for a vote for the rest of voters.
Stirling’s group, along with other horse racing industry groups, have petitioned for an administrative challenge to the barrel racing license that would also remove the Gadsden slot machine ballot from the referendum.