Posted on Tuesday, 12.06.11
GREATER MIAMI CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
Miami chamber getting closer to casino stand
Miami-Dade’s top business group is seen as pro-casino, but leaders say they’re just starting to look at the issue. A Monday forum showed how divisive the topic can be.
BY DOUGLAS HANKS DHANKS@MIAMIHERALD.COM
South Florida’s largest business advocacy group is getting closer to taking a stand on one of the biggest questions looming over the region at the moment: Will casino resorts help or hurt the economy?
A key committee of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce is scheduled to take its first vote this week in an extended process that could have the trade group joining the fight over casino gambling.
While Chamber leaders haven’t publicly stated their positions, the organization is fighting the impression that it will support the casino industry in its bid to expand into Miami-Dade.
“I talk to people all over who say, ‘I know you guys are in favor of it,’ ” Chamber CEO Barry Johnson said Monday morning before the group began its second gambling forum in two months. “I say, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa.’ ”
A draft resolution circulating among Chamber leaders would endorse a casino-resorts bill for South Florida, as long as the proposed bill was changed to give local racetracks and jai-alai frontons the same tax rates and casino games as the new facilities were given.
The Chamber proposal also would mandate that casinos hire local workers for at least 50 percent of their staffs, and pay for any “social and infrastructure impacts’’ from the new gambling destinations.
Though advocates on both sides of the issue describe casino resorts as capable of major changes in the economy — for better or for worse — the region’s business groups have largely been silent.
Neither of the nonprofits that advocate for Miami-Dade’s tourism industry, the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association and the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau — have taken a position. The Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce also hasn’t taken a stand on the casino issue, and its president said the group probably won’t.
“It’s a difficult issue to really get a handle on,” said Dan Lindblade, the Fort Lauderdale chamber’s president. “We’ve got members on both sides of the issue.” The Florida Chamber of Commerce, considered a strong ally of Walt Disney World, opposes the proposed casino bill, as do trade groups representing Florida restaurants, hotels and attractions. Associated Industries of Florida, a statewide business group, supports the bill, as do a number of trade groups representing the construction industry.
In South Florida, the only major trade groups tied to the construction industry, including the Latin Builders Association and South Florida Associated General Contractors, have joined the casino fray. Like their statewide counterparts, the builder groups endorse casinos as a way to jumpstart both the construction industry and the broader economy.
Gambling rocketed to the front of the political agenda statewide in May after Genting Group, Southeast Asia’s largest casino operator, paid $236 million for The Miami Herald’s waterfront headquarters. The purchase, financed with $200 million in corporate loans, gave momentum to long-running efforts by the Vegas gambling industry to expand Florida law to allow large-scale casino resorts beyond racetracks, jai-alai frontons and Indian lands.
Monday’s casino forum outlined the contentious road ahead for the Miami Chamber as it pursues a gambling stand.
Two former elected leaders made their cases on opposite ends of the issue: ex-congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s casting casinos as economic salvation, and ex-Miami-Dade commissioner Katy Sorenson’s warning of becoming Las Vegas East with all of the social woes that come with it.
“Nobody can name a community in the United States where gambling has been a success to that community,” said Sorenson, a Democrat who now heads the University of Miami’s Good Government Initiative. She listed a series of disturbing rankings for Nevada and Las Vegas, including first in foreclosures, unemployment, theft and bankruptcy.
“Would we like to compete to be No. 1 in any of those indicators?” she asked the crowd of about 80 people at Miami’s downtown Hilton.
Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican now lobbying for Genting, suggested it was elitist to dismiss the flood of hiring that new casinos would bring, particularly with unemployment topping 10 percent in the region.
“What I’d like to focus on is the social cost of 100,000 people who don’t have jobs today,” Diaz-Balart said, referring to industry claims that three casino resorts would create about 100,000 jobs in South Florida. “That is the cost that I’m looking at that would be alleviated by these destination resorts.”
Genting now owns the building that includes the Hilton, along with the Chamber’s rented offices. The Malaysian company bought the mortgage on the property, which includes the former Omni mall, after acquiring The Miami Herald site. Under the terms of the agreement, The Miami Herald can stay in its current quarters rent-free until May 2013.
In a letter published Sunday in The Herald, Johnson and the Chamber’s volunteer chair, Penny Shaffer, wrote it is “far from certain” what the group will decide on casinos. But the letter also cited some of the same points made by pro-casino advocates, including that Miami can’t be compared to Vegas and that the city already has casinos and has lived with gambling since the Lottery arrived in the 1980s.
The chamber committee focused on downtown Miami was supposed to vote on the draft resolution Monday, but poor attendance prompted a change to an e-mail vote by Wednesday. Four committees are expected to vote before the full board announces its decision at a Jan. 4 luncheon.
“This is probably one of the most complicated issues we have dealt with,” Johnson said.