Don’t gamble Miami’s boom on chance to be Las Vegas East
Miami’s revved-up economic engine was looking so powerful that nothing could derail it. Then the governor engineered a gambling bet last week that is the economic equivalent of a train wreck.
A devastating gambling deal that Ron DeSantis signed with the Seminole Tribe would not only legalize mobile sports betting all over the state but would let the Seminoles add three more casinos while opening wide the doors to at least three other Las Vegas-style casinos in Miami-Dade County while okaying more types of gambling elsewhere.
Casinos have been battering on Miami’s gates for decades. Each time, community leaders have united to keep them out. Finally, in 2018, a constitutional amendment seemed to have become a permanent safeguard by requiring a vote of Floridians to allow any future expansions of gambling. The governor is sidestepping that constitutional order, with potentially devastating consequences to Florida.
Casinos have always been a lure in downturns, as hucksters promise plenty of jobs (mostly low-paying) to shore up the economy. This menace was strongest during the Great Recession a decade ago.
False promises of casinos always offer to revive a high unemployment region. The prime example was when a depressed Atlantic City became a casino hub. The casino influx then pulled the city down to rock bottom.
But Miami is riding a growth wave. We’re attracting an influx of work-at-home wealthy who face high taxes elsewhere. We’re becoming a financial hub globally. We’re welcoming tech entrepreneurs. Our world-class center of arts and culture leverages the strength in Miami Beach of Art Basel, whose organizers point to the danger to their pivotal enterprise of a casino incursion into the city.
Moreover, our broader and far stronger community economic base has weathered even a devastating temporary tourism pandemic downturn. There is no need to inject gambling as a false salvation – casinos always prey locally on workers who can least afford to lose while weakening existing dining, hotel and entertainment businesses that are not part of a casino complex.
Our diversity is a strength: our individual communities have unique economic generators, from the visitor strength of Miami Beach to the cultural strength of Miami’s Omni arts area to the suburban flavor of fast-growing and thriving Doral. These areas vary markedly, yet all have carved out growing economic niches that enhance the whole county while creating better lifestyles for residents.
Ironically, it is those three areas that the governor’s perilous gambling deal could most affect – although a major gambling extension would soon tax the budgets of social service agencies and police countywide, an impact found in every community with a major gambling presence.
Impatient to open casinos are the owners of the Fontainebleau, Miami Beach’s largest hotel, who remodeled years ago with a casino in mind as soon as the state legalized it.
Also waiting is Malaysian gambling giant Genting, owner of both the former Omni mall downtown and adjacent land purchased from the Miami Herald for $236 million as the site for what was to be the world’s largest gambling resort.
Finally, Donald Trump has been bleeding wealth since weakening the Doral golf resort to become a money pit bearing his name. A casino bailout by public officials would be a gift to the former president and a curse to the neighboring community. Mr. Trump could also use a casino play to save his faltering investment in nearby Mar-a-Lago.
But before the governor’s backroom deal with the tribe can initiate a casino invasion, Miami and Florida have three potential protectors.
The first is a legislative session to be called the week of May 17 to rubberstamp the governor’s gamble to mine $500 million a year from the Seminoles in return for letting them run mobile sports betting, build three casinos, and add craps and roulette to their present gambling offerings, Las Vegas-style games that are now banned. The Seminoles in turn would not object as the state expanded gambling off the reservation as Florida’s visitor industry and community lifestyle did a 180-degree turn from family and business friendly to Las Vegas East.
In gambling ploys, the house always wins and most bettors lose. The worst bad bet, unfortunately, is the unlikely hope that the legislature would summon both wisdom and backbone to bounce the governor’s Las Vegas initiative out the door. The odds against a courageous legislative vote on casinos are about 10,000 to 1.
After all, most legislators live far from here. They could spend the tribe’s half billion a year payment in the rest of the state – in Tallahassee, we are always a donor area to the rest of Florida – and leave Miami-Dade to suffer the economic and social costs of dealing with casinos. Tallahassee’s casino fix would be in.
Another bad bet: the legislative session is expected to add a gambling oversight commission, a state agency that would odds-on be geared not to limit further gambling but to make sure that gambling establishments’ income expands, with a cut funneled to the legislature to spend.
The second casino barrier is equally weak. The federal government must approve any compact – like a treaty – with a tribal nation. Federal action, expected in August, is more likely to protect the tribe from a bad deal than a state or community from a far worse deal.
That leaves court action as protection from what opening the doors to casinos would do to Miami-Dade. Civic leaders will step up via a court challenge. Miami Beach as a city should do the same. They deserve all the support community leaders can muster, because gambling interests will put all their chips into a court battle.
The constitutional challenge would be strong: how could a governor and legislators collectively make a casino deal without the voter approval that the constitution requires? The argument must be that the Florida Constitution trumps a governor who wants to be a Trump himself.
Any legal effort will deserve full community support, because once a casino culture became the Miami culture there would be no going back. If we fail to protect our lifestyle from casinos once, we fail forever.
We need a solid defense by all who recognize that they do not want to be in Las Vegas East and neither do people from around the globe who come here now as big spending visitors and perhaps permanent residents and investors.
It’s a really bad bet to gamble a Miami lifestyle that is the envy of the globe for a chance to become Atlantic City or Las Vegas.