Making the News

Tampa Tribune

Originally Published:Sunday, September 2, 2007

It makes sense, though, to market the state as a gaming destination, says Joseph Weinert, senior vice president of Spectrum Gaming Group, a research and professional services firm serving the industry.

"I think Florida's on the verge of a major gambling expansion, whether it recognizes it or not," he says.

Pulling Gambling's Lever

By JEROME R. STOCKFISCH
Tampa Tribune

TALLAHASSEE - They are symbols of Florida, splashed across ads, brochures and Web sites touting one of the world's premier vacation destinations: Theme parks. Beaches. Golf courses.

Convention and visitors bureaus soon may have additional symbols of the Sunshine State to add to their pitches: One-armed bandits. Aces and jacks. Dice.

When Floridians went to the polls in fall 2004, they likely thought that when they voted on Constitutional Amendment 4, they were addressing the issue of whether South Floridians could decide whether to have slot machines.

That vote, however, toppled a series of dominos, and could topple more, dramatically changing the state's gambling landscape.

That could make the state a destination not just for the fun, sun and thrill-ride crowd, but for serious gamers.

At the Seminole Tribe's casinos in Tampa, Fort Myers and in South Florida, players soon could enjoy some of the same types of games offered in major U.S. and international gambling centers. More high-end slot machines and longer hours have been authorized at parimutuel facilities. More racetracks could wind up with video poker and other simulation games.

Don't expect a Las Vegas East or Atlantic City South, those in the industry say. Without a dense concentration of casinos, Florida won't challenge the dominant gambling markets.

It makes sense, though, to market the state as a gaming destination, says Joseph Weinert, senior vice president of Spectrum Gaming Group, a research and professional services firm serving the industry.

"I think Florida's on the verge of a major gambling expansion, whether it recognizes it or not," he says.

When it comes to people planning vacations, "They might say, 'Theme park, beach - oh, yeah, we can also go to a first-class casino as well,'" Weinert says. "In many cases, a casino can be a difference-maker."

State, Seminoles Negotiating Deal

Floridians have been able to bet on horses, dogs or jai-alai players since the 1930s. Indian gaming started with bingo halls in the 1970s.

The "slot machines" in modern Indian sites, including the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa, are technically glorified Class II bingo games, with players squaring off against each other rather than the house.

In 2004, supporters of the parimutuel industry, with its purses dropping and attendance sagging, succeeded in placing a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

Ostensibly, it asked voters if residents in Miami-Dade and Broward counties could authorize their existing parimutuel sites to offer Class III slot machines - the fancier, Las Vegas-style slots. The amendment passed statewide. Local voters then gave the thumbs-up in Broward but not Miami-Dade.

There was a key consequence that was largely unknown and unpublicized: Federal Indian gaming law allows tribes to petition to offer any type of gaming that a state has authorized elsewhere. The provision meant tribes also could offer Class III slots.

The Seminole Tribe initiated talks with former Gov. Jeb Bush, a staunch gambling foe, on a "compact," or gaming agreement. The talks stalled as Bush finished out his second term.

Now Gov. Charlie Crist is under a Sept. 11 deadline to reach a deal with the tribe.

If one is not reached, the tribe could have the unfettered ability to run Class III slot parlors.

Generally, the state is not allowed to touch a sovereign tribe's gaming revenue, but another little-known provision of Indian gaming law allows the state to enter into revenue-sharing agreements as long as it provides the tribe something of "significant economic value."

Crist is expected to be nearing an agreement that would provide the tribe that incentive: exclusive operation of games such as blackjack, craps or baccarat.

Negotiators for the tribe and the governor's office aren't talking specifics, but both sides say more advanced Class III gaming is being discussed.

Meanwhile, at the state Capitol, a bill allowing parimutuels throughout the state to install Class III video lottery terminals - the popular video poker games in higher-end casinos - passed the state Senate this spring but died in the House. A law was passed expanding the number of slot machines allowed and hours of operation at the Broward sites.

The recent moves aren't sitting well with Carey Theil, a member of the board of directors of the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, a Washington-based group.

"First, casino gambling knocks at the door," Theil says. "Then it bangs on the door. Then the door is barged open. Then the door is off the hinges. That's how this industry works. It metastasizes."

Crist Trying To Stay Open-Minded

Crist sidesteps questions about his state becoming a gaming destination, saying "that's already been the case."

He offers a pragmatic explanation of Florida's not-so-enviable negotiating position with the Seminoles: "In essence, if we don't negotiate, the odds are that the federal government will permit the tribe to have gaming," he says. "It seems to me from a common-sense point of view that if we can benefit the taxpayers of Florida, we ought to try to do that."

Some conservative groups already criticize Crist for what they consider his reversal on a campaign stance against expansion of gambling.


"There are not many things that I dislike as much as gambling, but there is one, and that's increased taxes," he responds. "I'm not willing to do that, so I'm trying to remain open-minded about other opportunities, even if I don't really like it."

Industry Could Be 'Significant'

The expansion from Class II slot parlors to full Class III gaming would be significant, says Weinert, the industry consultant.

"Once you start getting table games, you open yourself up to attracting gamblers from all over the world," he says. "Nobody's going to fly from Asia to Tampa to play slot machines. But they will come if you offer them the right table games, the right stakes and the right credit lines."

Bill Eadington, an economics professor and director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada-Reno, takes a different stance than Weinert when it comes to Florida. He likens the situation here to that of London - a world tourism capital that just happens to have a couple dozen casinos.

"People don't go to London for the casinos," Eadington says. "They go for other reasons, and then utilize the casinos. I would think that would be the model for Florida, because it's very difficult for a gaming destination to just evolve.

"That isn't to say it couldn't be a significant industry."

Indeed, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel has cited court records showing average annual profits of more than $500 million from Seminole gambling operations. The tribe generally does not reveal financial data.

Gary Bittner, a spokesman for the Seminole Tribe, says the two major Hard Rock casinos in Tampa and Fort Lauderdale are largely local draws.

"Having said that, the Hard Rocks certainly are important tourist destinations - attractions in their own right - and we would view it and market it as an attraction that helps to support everything going on in the area," he says.

Local tourism officials are taking a wait-and-see approach as negotiations between Crist and the tribe wind down.

"From a destination perspective, it adds another element to what we're able to sell here, and that's based on what they currently have," says Steve Hayes, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"At this point, I would have no idea even where to begin" marketing high-end gaming in the Tampa Bay area, he says. "Obviously, we want to consult some of our peers across the country who have that. It's one of those things you really have to start looking at, and talk to the folks at the Seminole Hard Rock, ask them what they're doing, who they are going after, and who we are going to be going after."

Reporter Jerome R. Stockfisch can be reached at (850) 222-8382 or jstockfisch@tampatrib.com.

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