Special to South Florida Times
MIAMI — While a proposed casino gambling bill has attracted both staunch endorsement and stalwart opposition throughout the state, some black lawmakers say the ever-changing bill will need to be more accountable to the black community before the measure can gain their support.
State Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-South Miami-Dade, described as “premature” a bill filed in October by Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami.
“It doesn’t take into consideration the scale of the operation they are trying to put together and how that scale will impact the surrounding community,” Bullard said.
Among other provisions, the bill calls for two casino destination resorts in Miami-Dade County and one in Broward County. “It’s the most controversial part of the legislation,” said state Rep. Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed, D-Pompano Beach.
The giant Malaysian gaming firm The Genting Group which has purchased The Miami Herald’s bayfront property in downtown Miami and the adjacent Omni office and hotel complex is proposing a $3.8 billion destination resort that could become the nation’s largest casino.
Florida already ranks third in the nation in the number of gambling facilities with 150, after Nevada with 362 and California with 184, according to the World Casino Directory. Additionally, Florida is the nation’s fourth largest state for tribal gaming, according to a recent report by Bernstein Research, a leading watcher of gambling stocks.
Casino competitors in Las Vegas also have expressed interest in acquiring a license for a gaming casino that could be located in Miami or Miami Beach.
Possible Broward locations could include the Rent-A-Center complex on Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale or Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, said state Rep. Joseph A. “Joe” Gibbons, D-Pembroke Pines.
“It’s a major piece of legislation that will have a major impact on Florida and tourism,” Gibbons said.
Bullard is more hesitant, saying the bill does not guarantee jobs for the surrounding communities.
“There is no provision that says that a certain percentage of Miami-Dade residents who live within a certain radius of the casino would have an opportunity for employment,” Bullard said. “It leaves way too much room for exploitation of the community” which includes Overtown, Liberty City and Allapattah..
Some lawmakers have talked to Genting representatives about a training program to provide workers for the casino. “They were agreeable to that,” said Gibbons, a businessman.
“Home-grown” employees should be an important component of the overall hiring picture, Gibbons said. “And there needs to be some cooperation and protection of existing businesses so that we don’t put them out of business.”
Discussion of the legislation so far has been too narrowly focused, Bullard said. “They haven’t talked about the impact of remaining cultural projects in the community, like the Lyric Theater,” he said. The landmark cultural icon is being renovated but is short of funds to complete the project.
“Why can’t the legislation build in an additional $8 million for the project?” Bullard said. “And if you have a one-stop destination casino in downtown Miami, what impact will that have on Bayside [Market Place]?”
Bullard’s mother, Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, who will leave the legislature this year after 20 years in the House and Senate, is worried that business interests might win out over the needs of the people.
“At this point, the proposal is one-sided,” she said. “It gives a tremendous authority to the people purchasing the property. They are trying to make the deal suitable to them and not to the community.”
The senator also is concerned about infrastructure. “You can barely get downtown for a game at the [AmericanAirlines] arena,” she said. “And if there is a program at the [Adrienne} Arsht Center [for the Performing Arts] and a game on the same day, it takes 45 minutes to exit the highway ramp. Who is going to pay for new infrastructure? It will fall back to the people.”
The state legislators are not the only ones demanding more scrutiny of the proposed law enabling resort gamling to come to town. Miami Beach and Pinecrest, two Miami-Dade cities, voted in December to call on the Legislature to reject any new casinos. Also last month, a small group of ministers held a press conference in front of The Miami Herald building to oppose the legislation, citing issues of morality and an anticipated increase in crime.
Hallandale Beach Vice Mayor Anthony Sanders is pastor of the 100-member Higher Vision Ministries located in Hallandale Beach “I understand completely what the ministers are saying,” said Sanders, who worked as a pari-mutuel clerk at Hollywood Greyhound before becoming a minister. “Casino gambling does have the potential to produce crime and it can have a negative effect. But we have to find a way to make what is negative into a positive,” Sanders said. “If we come together and work with the potential gaming [interests] we could look at it as a way to help our community instead of harming our community.”
Other groups opposing the bill include the Florida Sheriffs Association and the Florida Chamber of Commerce. While the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce gave its support a week before legislators headed to Tallahassee, the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce, which represents black-owned businesses, has not yet taken a position.
“Like everyone else, we are curious to know what the position is on inclusion of minorities,” said Miami-Dade Chamber president and CEO Bill Diggs, who recently returned from a trip to Singapore. Casinos there employ a diverse work force, he said. “They understand the importance of working with the community.”
The chamber will be negotiating with key state legislators and Genting representatives on putting black-owned firms to work on casino facilities as part of the chamber’s minority-inclusion goals, Diggs said.
“We’ve been in contact with them already.”
Just one day before Tuesday’s opening of the 2012 legislative session, the proposed measure was overhauled by the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, one of several revisions of the original bill.
The proposal, which creates a state agency to oversee the gaming industry, erases two earlier “parity concerns” that full-scale casino games be allowed at any pari-mutuel facility in the two counties, not just the new ones. It also allows current pari-mutuels to pay the same 10 percent tax rate that would be paid by the new resort casinos. The proposal also has a referendum requirement for counties considering having a casino.
The flurry of changes leads Clarke-Reed to wonder if the bill will see passage this year. “I am not sure that casino gambling will be the priority during this legislative session,” Clarke-Reed said. “Redistricting has to happen; it must take place. We have to pass the budget and I don’t see that casino gambling bill will go anywhere.”
Gibbons differs. “I think it will be a priority, along with redistricting and passing the budget,” he said.
Tsitsi Wakhisi may be reached at TWakhisi@miami.edu
Photo: Bill Diggs