A wisened, humbler Genting may finally win with scaled-back, slots-heavy plan

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With a smarter, humbler plan for expanded gambling in South Florida, Malaysia-based Genting Group may finally win the jackpot it has been after for years.

Three years ago the company had designs on converting the Miami Herald‘s property on Biscayne Bay into a lavish destination casino, but then a company executive turned heads after he swore in front of a Senate committee in response to a critic’s suggestion that his casino would import workers from Atlantic City and Las Vegas rather than employ Floridians.

After that incident, it didn’t surprise many when a Genting-backed proposal permitting destination casinos struck out before the Florida Legislature.

After failing to convince state lawmakers, Genting was prepared to take its case directly to Florida voters. The gambling giant contributed almost $1 million to a political committee that was hiring lawyers, media consultants, pollsters and ballot-access firms to prepare an effort to put the issue on the ballot in 2014. 

But after several high-level meetings between representatives of the company and legislative leaders, Genting threw away that hand and decided to bank on the outcome of the Legislature’s planned two-year look at gambling. The hope had been that during the 2014 legislative session, the state would legalize destination casinos and allow the company to finally build on its prime waterfront property.

“It just makes absolute sense to work with the House and Senate in a collaborative way,” Genting lobbyist Brian Ballard said at the time.

Full-scale destination resorts may still be Genting’s vision, but this week brought news that Resorts World Omni, a division of Genting, has assembled a surprisingly humbler deal than the one it sought three years ago — a scaled-down one that would allow the company to build a slots-heavy casino in downtown Miami.

In poker terms, what Genting hopes to do is the equivalent of drawing to an inside straight — it needs just one card, in this case state approval, to make its hand, and if it does, it’s sure to rake in a handsome pot of money.

What Genting has done could also serve as a template for expanded gambling in Florida, one that respects the parimutuel-rich past of gaming in the Sunshine State, while not presenting the same level of threat opponents of gambling, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Disney, and No Casinos, Inc., argue that full-scale casino gambling presents.

The details of Genting’s plan were first revealed by the News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam. The agreement between Resorts World and Gulfstream, along with breeders and thoroughbred horse owners and trainers, involves relocating a permit to the Miami bayfront property purchased by Genting in 2011 for $236 million. The permit at the heart of the deal was issued to the Gulfstream Park Thoroughbred Aftercare Retirement Program, a non-profit linked to The Stronach Group, which also owns Gulfstream.

State law allows pari-mutuel permit holders in Broward and Miami-Dade counties to operate up to 2,000 slot machines. Under this deal, races would continue to run at Gulfstream, while Resorts World would manage the slot machine and cardroom operations at its downtown property.

Resorts World, which also owns the Hilton Hotel a block away from the old Herald tower site, plans to put up three condo towers, a promenade along the water and a 500-room luxury hotel, about a tenth of the 5,000-room extravaganza once envisioned, Kam reports.

However, before the first hotel room is booked or slot machine is pulled, the Legislature will have to address the issue of “decoupling.” In layman’s terms, this means having the slot machines separated from dog or horse racing or jai alai games. Opponents of Genting’s plan, including a lawyer/lobbyist for rival Calder Casino & Race Course, argue that this would be a “dramatic change in the philosophy” of gambling law.

“Obviously it’s understandable that other facilities would try to oppose it because who would like increased competition?” said Gulfstream President and General Manager Tim Ritvo. “But the idea of the permit is not just to benefit a single entity but to benefit the entire racing industry.” 

Ritvo makes a smart point that allowing Genting to operate the 2,000 slot machines permitted to Gulfstream is not truly an expansion of gambling because Gulfstream is already entitled to do this. 

If the choice is between 2,000 slot machines and card room located at a dog and horse track or 2,000 slot machines and card room located near a billion dollars in resort construction, the decision for lawmakers and state regulators is easy:  Let Genting, smarter and wiser after several years of trying to break into the Florida market, finally win a pot.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.