Miami International Airport lays plans for horse racing track — needed or not
By Risa Polansky
To mount a campaign for slot machines, a quarter-horse racetrack at Miami International Airport could open as soon as July 28 next year — if it must.
Miami-Dade Aviation is equipped to build a track and hold quarter-horse races, the department assures the state in a report issued last week.
But the plan is still to avoid saddling up at the airport.
In jockeying to install slot machines at the airport — conceived as a way to boost revenues in the face of ascending debt service and operating costs — the county department had to first apply for a quarter-horse racing permit through the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation's Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.
In response, the state last month sent back a list of 14 "deficiencies" in aviation's application, most dealing with the county's ability — financially and logistically — to build a track and hold races on site.
"The application must contemplate that eventuality… but again, it is not our intention to have the races at the airport," said Miguel Southwell, aviation's deputy director of business retention and development, in an interview last week.
Races are a must if the county wants to install slots, but the state doesn't require both on the same site.
Still, the county must prove racing could take off at the airport.
Since unveiling the airport gambling idea in June, aviation officials have made clear the plan is to lease the county's racing permit to an existing track, not host races on site.
The department's Aug. 25 response to the state's deficiency report affirms the same.
"…It is the county's intention that for at least the first 12 months of racing and for an indeterminate period time thereafter that racing under its quarter-horse permit will be conducted at another licensed racetrack in either Miami-Dade or Broward counties… It is the county's intention to select a venue via a competitive bidding process and require the successful bidder to provide all necessary facilities, equipment and personnel necessary to operate the racing…"
The response mentions also that two local tracks "have expressed an interest in hosting the county's racing."
Regardless, the state demands logistical details for running races at the airport.
The county's got it covered, the documents say.
"In the event a venue is not secured… the county is capable and prepared to commence construction within one year of the issuance of the permit…"
The county's response comes complete with a hypothetical construction schedule.
A 45-day design phase for the proposed track could begin Oct. 1.
Permitting in late December would take about two weeks, the schedule shows, with material orders running concurrently.
Demolition, electrical installation and other site preparations could begin mid-January and wrap up in February to make way for laying the track base.
Track construction would run into late April, when detention and receiving barns, jockey trailers, parking and a grandstand would be built, the schedule shows, in time for a July 28 grand opening.
The county for the first racing year plans to seek a license "for only two days of racing," the documents also note.
The state asked also that the county prove the proposed racing site — now an employee parking lot —could be rezoned, and that the Federal Aviation Administration would give clearance.
The aviation department's response to the state includes reassurance from the county's zoning head and a federal aviation official.
The letter from Planning and Zoning Director Marc LaFerrier notes the lot can be designated for "unusual use" to make way for a racetrack through an amendment to the county's comprehensive plan, which would require a public hearing.
It's now designated as "terminal," allowing for aviation-related use.
Last year, as part of the county's comprehensive plan amendment cycle, the aviation department applied for "various changes… related to allowable uses," Mr. LeFerrier's letter says. And "recently," aviation requested a change that would include the proposed track as an allowed use.
The commission is to vote on the department's amendment application Oct. 7.
The feds also said the track shouldn't be a problem, so long as the county follows federal and local guidelines should it gallop ahead with construction.
"The proposal does not exceed any federal obstruction standard and has no effect on the safe and efficient utilization of the navigable airspace by aircraft or on the operation of air navigation facilities," the letter from aviation administration Program Manager Pedro J. Blanco says.
The county aviation department's response to the state also addresses financial questions, assuring that the county has the fiscal wherewithal to build a track if need be.
"All expenses related to the construction of the racetrack can be absorbed within the available operations budget of the Aviation Department," it says. "To the extent additional capital expenditures would be required the Aviation Department has extensive bonding capacity available to finance same. In addition, revenue producing airport projects are also eligible for various types of bonds…"
In responding to applications, the state generally averages about 30 questions, the aviation department's Mr. Southwell said. The county had to address about half that number.
"All they're trying to do is to do their due diligence," he said.
In closing out the deficiency report, state licensing administrator E.J. Barnes raises a final concern: "We believe that a governmental entity may not be eligible to apply for a quarter-horse permit because it is not a "person' as that term is defined" in state statute.
That's for the state to address, Mr. Southwell said, but "the county's certainly aware of the fact of other licenses that are granted to other municipalities for a range of other items being regulated by the state, from bingo to others, and so this is really uncharted territory for us because people we have talked to are not aware of any other precedent where this issue has arisen."
Mr. Southwell noted also that the state's attorney general in the 1970s opined governments could run horse races when Hialeah considered taking over the track there.
On receiving aviation's response, the state has 30 days to reply and potentially raise other questions.
Once comfortable with the application, the state has 120 days to decide whether the county gets to the starting gate on its run for the slots.