Casino could make city's bad Jungle Island gamble worse
By Michael Lewis
As Miami officials last week delayed a vote on a Watson Island lease for Jungle Island, Asian giant Genting was unveiling a casino venture on an island just 48 nautical miles away.
The parallel is clear.
On city-owned Watson Island, meeting hall/wildlife attraction Jungle Island is linked to an unnamed partner to develop an undisclosed amenity aimed at turning losses to profits.
On Bimini in the Bahamas, Genting is venturing with a Miami resort operator to add a casino and expand profits.
Both projects rely on drawing residents and guests from the lucrative Miami market plus visitors from elsewhere.
Both also rely on deep-pocket partners to spur below-par operations.
Does the parallel extend to both relying on casinos?
Jungle Island has disclosed little, banking on Miami officials to grab upfront cash to fill budget gaps without asking key questions or banning uses that would tarnish city-owned land at downtown's doorstep.
Genting plans at least one massive Miami casino. It owns the Miami Herald site plus the former Omni Mall, its local base. It has tried to legalize casinos in Florida so that it can open huge casinos on both sites.
No doubt Genting and several US operators will keep trying to legalize casinos in Florida. They will return again and again to batter down the barrier that keeps them out.
Yielding would be criminal. As gambling invades more and more areas — like Bimini, just 30 minutes by air — Florida's position as a more wholesome resort and meeting site strengthens us.
Opening the door to casinos would erode our brand value, an economic bedrock, and trigger lifestyle, social, infrastructure, government cost and moral concerns.
Miami city officials usually duck any casino question by saying the state legislature rules.
But now they must show backbone.
Jungle Island seeks a 50-year lease extension, more city land at no rent at all for those acres for the next 99 years and forgiveness of some debt in exchange for some debt payment now and a share of future profit.
Nothing today limits what "attractions" Jungle Island can offer. And what attracts some people more than the chance to lose huge amounts in a very short time at the gaming tables?
If the city foolishly cuts a Jungle Island profit-sharing deal that doesn't bar gambling, it could become a partner in a casino: the more residents and visitors gamble away, the more the city reaps.
City Manager Johnny Martinez, who asked to delay a vote until next week, proposes to alter the deal that Jungle Island flopped on the table from giving the city a percentage of profit to a percentage of revenue.
That would help keep Jungle Island and its partners from shifting profits from one pot to another to shut out taxpayers, as happens at AmericanAirlines Arena. The Miami Heat has never paid the county a cent of profit in its deal.
But a change from sharing profits to sharing revenues still could leave a city reaping greater and greater gains as more and more residents lost more and more money gambling.
Jungle Island leaves no room for elected officials to duck a casino stance.
If they give away highway land, a Japanese Garden and more for 99 years at no rent and extend a bad lease another 50 years under worse terms than today, plus forgive debt, they then must decide whether to potentially make taxpayers complicit as casinos profit.
We don't favor any deal that gives away more to a tenant that can't pay.
But if the city does buckle, a new lease at minimum must ban gambling on the site in both the lease and law.
We're not just inventing gambling in Jungle Island's future. Commissioners are well aware that its lobbyist and spokesman before the city, Brian May, represents US casino giant Sands.
Mr. May also represents another Watson Island leaseholder that isn't performing: Flagstone, developer of the long-delayed Island Gardens marina and luxury hotel project just a chip's throw from Jungle Island.
Imagine a casino's paradise: Miami front-door waterfront with boat slips, a highway to the airport, a tunnel being built directly into our tourist-magnet seaport — and a sweetheart long-term lease at low cost.
Put together Island Gardens, Jungle Island and lots more city land at no rent for 99 years and you've got a winner for the tables.
Jungle Island isn't being asked to reveal its big new investor or to limit city land uses. All that's specified in the plan is a hotel, a casino necessity.
Miami officials long have played fast and loose with the waterfront. Most leases have been sloppy. Favorable terms have gone to business partners of two recent mayors.
Now officials are on the verge of a giveaway of unparalleled scope to protect a failed lease of a tenant that cannot pay.
That's a bad enough gamble. We must rule out casinos that would make big losses a certainty.
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