Miami-Dade commissioners horse around with master development plan for sake of slots
By Risa Polansky
Chomping at the bit for added revenues, Miami-Dade commissioners have agreed to horse around with the state.
They last week acknowledged it may seem nonsensical to change the county's master development plan to allow for an imaginary quarter-horse racetrack at Miami International Airport, but in the end decided it's not worth climbing on their high horse when millions in potential added income is on the line.
The county is considering installing slots at the airport as one way to combat ascending debt service and operating costs.
A quarter-horse racing permit from the state is the first step toward a slots license.
Miami-Dade officials say they plan to lease the racing permit to an existing track and have no intention of saddling up at the airport.
Still, the state is asking the county to prove it could — in part through amending its comprehensive development master plan to allow for the racetrack.
"It just seems to me this is a very strange amendment we're seeking," Commissioner Katy Sorenson said at last week's meeting, questioning why the county would go through the motions of planning for a racetrack it doesn't want.
The state requires it if the county wants slots, explained Miguel Southwell, the Aviation Department's deputy director of business retention and development.
Ms. Sorenson didn't take the carrot.
"I don't think we want horse races there," she said. "I don't even think we want gambling at the airport — at least I don't."
She was the only one.
Though they asked Mr. Southwell several times to ensure they'd never see racehorses on airport land, the other 10 commissioners at the meeting jockeyed behind aviation officials, emphasizing the need to move quickly.
The clock is ticking on an agreement between the state and the Seminole Tribe, and that pending gambling pact would keep quarter-horse racing permit holders from slot machine licenses.
So getting out of the gate now is vital if the county wants even a shot at slots, commissioners said, reasoning it's best to keep the option open even if they later choose to vote against gambling at the airport.
"Whether you're for gaming or not, it allows an opportunity for it to be pursued… We may never pursue it, but I think it's nice to have it," Commissioner Sally Heyman said.
Commissioner Javier Souto stressed the financial need.
"I don't gamble… [but] I believe that regulated gambling can be good for a community... we are in a crisis, no one knows what's going to happen here… We are tripping over each other trying to find money… and here it is that these guys came up, the airport, with this creative thing. I believe we have to give them a chance. I don't think that anyone wants horses at the airport," he said. But "I trust them… They don't have any plan to conduct races at the airport… These guys are not stupid. And we're not stupid."
The county is still dealing with the fallout of slashing a purported $444 million from its budget in the face of plummeting revenues.
And the Aviation Department expects its annual $600 million in expenses to nearly double by 2015 because of ascending debt service and operating costs.
"So if this thing [slots] is going to be sort of like a tax paid by tourism, that's great, I think," Mr. Souto said. "Don't come here asking for money and saying this about the budget and that about the budget, and I don't have this and I don't have that, and when someone comes with a plan, then also criticize the plan — because that's very hypocritical… Put your mouth really where the money's going to be. The money's going to be there."
Twenty-one out of 100 passengers have said they would likely play the slots, Mr. Southwell told commissioners.
That's about 13 million people a year.
County documents project airport slots could generate $17 million to $20 million a year.
"The point is this seems to be a very good business," Mr. Souto said.
And folks don't have to gamble if they don't want to, Commissioner Carlos Gimenez said.
Commissioners are requiring the would-be airport slot machines be installed only past security checkpoints.
As on a cruise ship, travelers could choose whether to play in the designated casino areas, Mr. Gimenez said.
And because you'd need a plane ticket to pass security and hit the slots, the machines won't be competition for local gambling establishments.
If someone does buy a ticket just to get to the airport's slot machines, "please send them my way — I have a bridge I want to sell them," Mr. Gimenez said.
Slots at the airport could make one of the county's biggest economic engines "much more viable," he added, potentially even leading to lower costs to airlines.
"We need to bring that cost down, and this is one way to do it."
Commissioner Joe Martinez said he's a slots supporter but voiced concern that changing the county's overarching development plan to allow horse races at the airport leaves open opportunity for future administrators to take advantage, though today's officials ensure they won't.
"I just want to make sure that this board [of commissioners] has the ultimate say on whether horses go there or not in the future," he said.
Further zoning action would be required before bringing in horses, Assistant County Attorney Joni Armstrong Coffey said. The City of Miami may have a say there.
But in the end, "the Board [of County Commissioners] sets the policy for the airport… The board controls the policy as to whether horses actually race."
An appeased Mr. Martinez let out a whinny.
And opponent Ms. Sorenson later joined in on the horseplay, casting the only "neigh" vote.