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Nancy Smith

Five Things That Surprised the Heck Out of Me at the Florida Gaming Congress

February 25, 2013 - 6:00pm

For a roomful of people who, as former Senate President Mike Haridopolos said during his luncheon address "historically don't like each other very much," the 8th Florida Gaming Congress is like a third-grade classroom of teachers' pets, all with hands folded and legs crossed.

Where are the fireworks, I asked myself? Why are these people sotolerant. Are they medicated?

Just one of the things that threw me for a loop at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood. Actually, I've got a list of five to share -- five cattle-prod shocks - OK, they're not bolts out of the blue, but still ...

1. Sweetness-and-light congenialityamong sworn enemies, even with millions and even billions at stake.

I should have known better. All major players, from the family-friendlies to the Tribe, from the dog-and-pony tracks to the hospitality industry .. all of them are so lobbied up with lawyers, one principal couldn't find another principal unless he made half a dozen appointments first.

OK, I exaggerate. But I realized by the end of the day that these guys aren't just guys, they're whole law firms. They know the issue they represent. They know it on all sides and inside out. They're way past fireworks. Mostly, they're here to polish the public image, or assist with damage control as needed.

Actually, I love lobbyists, especially gaming lobbyists, and I love that most of them like to talk.

Much of the quiet, as I found out asking around, is due to two things: the deliberative mood of the Legislature, where leaders have sworn to back off from gaming votes until 2014, and the professionalmanner in which organizing sponsor Spectrum Gaming Group set up the event. Each panel producing speakers had representatives from more than one, and most had several, principal stakeholders. They included the Seminole Tribe, the pari-mutuels, the hospitality industry, the state, and the big casino developers.

2. Internet gambling is sonoton the near horizon.

We're only about a year past the Department of Justice opinion allowing Internet gambling back in the U.S. where the technology (and most of the early players) came from. The battle among who is going to be first to roll it out in the U.S.? To New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's chagrin, Nevada and Delaware both were ahead of New Jersey in accepting Internet gaming.

And where is Florida in the pecking order? Nowhere. "There's absolutely no urgency to consider this topic," said Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Pembroke Pines. "We've got enough on our plate now." Florida isn't interested -- but it should be.

Surely Rep. Gibbons can fit one more tiny, savory nugget on next year's gaming plate.

By legalizing Internet gaming, New Jersey could see a huge jump in state casino revenue, to an estimated $436 million in fiscal 2014 from $235 million this year, which ends June 30, according to budget documents.Earlier this month, the prospect of a quick approval of online gambling in New Jersey spurred gains among gaming companies on both side of the Atlantic amid hopes it could unlock a market worth up to $1 billion.

In fact, some folks at the Congress thought Internet gaming, was Internet sweepstakes gaming -- the bottom feeder of all Florida gaming. No similarity. We're light years behind other states in at least taking a look.

3. Pari-mutuels shouldn't be subjected to the free-market argument. They operate with a difference.

I never gave this one a thought until Robert Heller, CEO of Spectrum Gaming Capital, explained it to me Tuesday over the break-time coffee urn: You can't apply free-market principles to pari-mutuels, he said.

Meaning, you can't say, let natural selection do its thing.Pari-mutuels don't play on a level field.

"How many businesses do you know that have to compete as highly regulated and licensed as they are?" Heller said. A track owner might have paid tens of thousands of dollars for a license, only to find out the facility he bought is virtually useless.

Pari-mutuels provide jobs and build the economy like other local businesses, but they are not like other businesses. There are 26 such pari-mutuels struggling for survival. The state should cut them a tax break.

4. A South Florida destination casino makes enormous sense in Sunrise, closer to the Everglades than the beach.

The "Most Buzz" Award during the event goes to Michael Yormark, charismatic president of Sunrise Sports & Entertainment, better known as the National Hockey League's Florida Panthers.

"Over 42 million tourists a year patronize the mall across the street from our arena (in Sunrise)," Yormark said of the massive Sawgrass mall complex. "We would be happy to see more, happy to see anything that brings more of them to Sunrise."

Raising his voice for emphasis, he told the 175 Congress attendees, "A destination casino is "completely consistent" with our operation. We compete with the Dolphins, Marlins and Heat, not anybody who brings more visitors here.

"We are taking a very active interest in the passage of the right legislation to bring a world-class casino resort to South Florida."

Much of the afternoon the ballroom buzzed with how much sense a destination resort makes in Sunrise -- near the airport, where there's room, where the network of roads already in place can handle much of the anticipated traffic, where the public reaction is likely to be more positive.

5. The real gamblers, the Wall Street boys, confidently predicted that by 2020, Florida will have between three and six destination casinos throughout the state, not just in South Florida -- without ever putting the constitutional amendment against gambling to a vote of the people.

Heller, moderator of the "Wall Street's Focus on Florida" session, said at least three of these mega resorts will be built byWynn Resorts Ltd.

I'll throw in a sixth surprise -- though it was only a surprise because I hadn't been there before.The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood is magnificent. Pricey rooms, but indeed a destination resort in every sense of the word. I've been to Hard Rock casinos before, but none as glam or as full of nongaming fun as this one.

I haven't seen the Hard Rock in Tampa, and I wouldn't bet against that one, either.

The Tribe is justifiably proud, won't tolerate a decision in 2014 that would hurt its substantial investment, nor should it. If the Hard Rock is "the Rodney Dangerfield of Florida gaming venues," as I heard it described during lunch, that's truly unfortunate.

During his welcome address, John Fontana, president of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa, said "Nobody has a greater stake in the gaming future of this state than the Seminole Tribe."

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews or at (850) 727-0859.

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