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Miami casinos' future tied to jobs

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Miami casinos' future tied to jobs


Sun-drenched Miami has beaches, South Beach nightspots, a new stadium for the Marlins and athletic superstars such as LeBron James.

But nearly 300,000 people are out of work from the recession and real estate market collapse.

Now, some big-money backers are touting a new attraction that promises to boost jobs: casinos. They say Miami can become an East Coast version of Las Vegas, sparking the state's stalled economy.

Malaysia-based Genting Group, which runs a massive Singapore casino, has spent nearly a half-billion dollars to acquire Miami property. It has a plan for a $3.8 billion complex.

The money spent by Genting has sparked the interest of Las Vegas casino operators and those who own sports facilities in South Florida.

But this new vision for Miami will require approval from the Republican-led Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott. Casino backers are lobbying, and it appears gambling will be one of the biggest issues lawmakers deal with in the session that starts next month.

It would be tempting to think lawmakers are eager to go along, as Florida grapples with a 10.3 percent unemployment rate.

But that's not the case.

A bill filed by two South Florida legislators calls for each company wanting a casino to spend a minimum of $2 billion. It has won the backing of builders and contractors and a big business lobby. But a diverse coalition, from Disney World, Florida Chamber of Commerce and dog and horse track owners, worries about the future and want lawmakers to reject the concept.

They said such a massive proposal will harm them because promises of luring thousands of tourists won't pan out. They note Nevada's struggling economy as proof.

"The reason these billion dollar casinos want to leave Atlantic City and Las Vegas is that they know Florida is growing," said Mark Wilson, Florida Chamber chief. "It would be a fundamental mistake for us to fall for that bet."

Floridians spend a lot gambling. The state lottery took in more than $4 billion last fiscal year. State economists said pari-mutuels and Indian gaming generate $3 billion.

Genting officials said three new mega-casinos could generate from $4.5 billion to $7 billion more.

The optimistic take on casinos isn't shared by some who follow the gambling industry. Janet Blackshear, of Bernstein Research, said South Florida casinos could attract tourists. But she doubts the state can support what is envisioned. She warns Florida is a not a "clean slate" and would have to become larger than Las Vegas to support a return on the investment mandated by the legislation.

Casino opposition may doom it this year. Lawmakers appear split, and Scott has avoided a stance.

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