Miami Beach is setting the pace on gambling for all of us
Written by Michael Lewis on May 9, 2017
For all the right reasons, Miami Beach this week is to vote to keep casinos out of its city limits. The legislation should be passed, and then should become a model for every other government in Miami-Dade County to do the same thing.
The most important reason for every city to act now to bar gambling is that neither the state legislature nor county hall can be counted on to hold the gates against the constant battering ram of mega-casinos.
Each legislative session casino interests get closer and closer to breaking through the barriers, as they almost did this year.
Meanwhile, county government has just begun a partnership with Genting, the Malaysian casino giant that bought the old Omni mall and the former Miami Herald site with the stated purposes of putting a mega-casino on each site. In the new partnership, a Genting affiliate will build a 300-room hotel with plenty of operating space for a casino over a county bus terminal adjacent to the other two sites – clearing the way for not just one casino but a whole casino district.
Miami Beach, which thrives on the visitor industry, knows well what a wide-open casino could do to the upper-end visitors the city has come to attract more and more. Art Basel visitors and a Florida Atlantic City wouldn’t mix, and the huge loss to the community would be economic, sociological and cultural.
From Miami Beach, the blight would spread to the rest of the county. Despite the legislature’s decimation of Visit Florida in the just-ended legislative session, the economy of Miami-Dade, like the rest of this state, depends on visitors. Gambling is bringing in fewer visitors everywhere, and many of the high-end visitors who like the current climate of Miami-Dade would be repelled.
Because neither the state nor the county can be depended upon to hold the gates shut against casinos, the city is approaching its legislation as a land use and zoning matter, proposing planning and zoning regulations that would bar gambling uses. So even if the state were to legalize casinos, they couldn’t operate in Miami Beach based on land and zoning rules.
Again, every city should emulate Miami Beach. Then, if the state legalized them, casinos could enter unincorporated areas, leaving it to county hall to summon the wisdom and courage to also bar gambling – though Genting probably has too many county commissioners on its side already to make that happen.
Miami Beach’s planning analysis for this week’s legislation is instructive. It notes that while the legislature didn’t allow more casinos in Miami-Dade this year “there is always the possibility of special sessions or for new bills to be introduced in future legislative sessions. It is therefore important that the city’s comprehensive plan and land development regulations address casinos in the event that the State Legislature allows an expansion of gambling or casinos at some point in the future.”
As for legality, the analysis concludes that the city is well within both its home rule and police powers to adopt the proposed zoning and comprehensive plan amendments.
The legislative analysis notes not only the well-documented social ills of gambling but the economic danger to the rest of the tourist industry: casinos are designed to keep the guests inside their facilities, not seeing the community and its attractions. That would imply that local spending per visitor would drop markedly in a casino economy, so even with the same number of visitors local incomes would fall.
The first airing of the three city measures is today (5/11) – the Planning Board is to review them and send them to the city commission for a 2 p.m. hearing tomorrow (5/12) at city hall. The city commission’s vote will be preliminary, meaning final action would come after the commission, as it should, passes the items this week.
These measures, all ordinances, won’t be engraved in stone. Future city commissions could be swayed to undo what this commission should do now – erect gambling barriers. We should be counting on the state constitution to protect us – but we can’t, because as the city analysis notes, a future legislature could open the doors wide to gambling.
The casino interests will never stop trying to get in. Each step they take inside will lead to another and another.
The only defenses are to pass local measures like Miami Beach’s today and then have constant vigilance. Not only are we protecting our visitor economy but the lifestyle that keeps us here.
People pick the lifestyle they prefer. Of this we are certain: Atlantic City is selling very few multi-million-dollar condos. The big money comes here already, and comes to live as well as to visit. We have nothing to gain, and everything to lose, with casinos.
It’s appropriate that Miami Beach show leadership and lead the way. Who knows the visitor industry better?