Miami’s arts scene frames casinos as threat
BY DOUGLAS HANKS
Anti-casino advocates gathered in Miami’s artiest neighborhood Saturday morning and warned that bringing mega-casinos to South Florida threatens to reverse the city’s cultural progress.
“Downtown is finally becoming what we want downtown to be,’’ former Miami-Dade commissioner Katy Sorenson told a crowd of about 120 people at the Light Box Theater, a performance space in Wynwood. “We’ve got some unique, funky Miami kind of things going on. Why do we want to these huge mega-resorts to come in?”
The speakers at the Urban Environment League forum covered the full range of anti-casino arguments, from worries over gambling addictions to traffic woes if Florida approves a bill designed to bring three $2 billion casino resorts to South Florida. But the setting — the Goldman Warehouse, home to art non-profits and owned by Tony Goldman, the developer behind Wynwood’s emergence as a gallery district — highlighted the role the arts are playing in the debate.
In May, Genting Group announced its $236 million purchase of The Miami Herald site at an Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center. The chairman of the center’s board, Mike Eidson, joined executives of the Malaysian casino company at that first press conference, and later talked about the center running a 700-seat theater for Genting.
But after the friendly debut, Eidson and others in the Arsht leadership backed off, voicing worries about Genting’s plan to build the world’s largest casino across the street. In an interview Saturday, Eidson, a prominent lawyer, spoke in the harshest terms yet on the Genting resort’s potential impact
on the county-owned Arsht center as a cultural hub for downtown.
“It’s too big. It overwhelms the entire arts concept we had there,’’ Eidson said. “We could never come up with a plan that could accommodate that.”
He said the center’s initial willingness to work with its new neighbor in developing the neighborhood turned to “grave” concerns at a subsequent lavish dinner on an Arsht stage when Genting executives outlined just how big the resort would be.
“It makes the Arsht Center look insignificant,’’ he said. “All that money we put into that facility, and you wouldn’t even notice it anymore.”
Genting executives were not available for interviews Saturday. But in past statements, the company has argued its 30-acre Resorts World Miami will elevate the city as a global destination by bringing stunning architecture and a new wave of Asian tourists.
It also argues the 5,200-room resort would bolster the Arsht center by delivering a steady stream of guests to the tax-funded facility and paying for permanent shows on slow nights.
Genting’s plan has galvanized many in Miami’s growing arts scene. Norman Braman, one of the city’s wealthiest art collectors, is a leader in the anti-casino movement. Jorge Perez, whose $35 million gift would put his name on the Miami Art Museum’s new home across I-395 from the Genting site, has criticized the plan. Art Basel, the Swiss-based arts show that comes to Miami Beach in December, has privately warned it might seek a different winter home if the casino resorts move in, according to city officials.
The Basel preview party earlier this month was also the launching pad for new anti-casino shirts designed by Brian Ehrlich and friends. Styled in the same font as the Basel catalog, the $20 shirts read “make art not casinos” down the front. Perez was spotted wearing one at a recent gala for the art museum. Ehrlich, 30, had a bag of them on hand for Saturday’s forum, saying they are designed to show Miami doesn’t need casinos.
“We love Basel. We love what’s happening in Miami right now, and how the art scene is developing,’’ said Ehrlich, who works in the finance industry.
At the Light Box forum, University of Miami history professor Gregory Bush slammed the notion that Resorts World could reposition Miami in a favorable way. He criticized Genting Chairman KT Lim for a comment from the company’s September unveiling of its resorts plans, when Lim said: “I strongly believe this can be the agent of transformation that can turn Miami into a real city.”
“It’s rather insulting for him to seek to remake us in his corporate image,’’ Bush said.
Though Las Vegas Sands and Wynn also are advocating for casinos in the Miami area, only Genting has purchased land — about $500 million worth of it, including the Omni retail and hotel complex next to the Herald. Casino advocates see the pushback by Braman as an example of Miami’s elite dismissing the thousands of jobs a Genting casino could bring to Miami at a time when Miami-Dade unemployment is a near-record 11 percent.
“There are a relatively small number of voices criticizing this legislation,’’ said Genting political consultant Carlos Curbelo, who also sits on the Miami Dade school board.
“There is a major disconnect between what the overwhelming majority of residents of this community want, and what the wealthy business interests are saying,” he said.
Alicia Cervera, a Miami real estate broker who bought a table at the art museum gala, dismissed criticism that the size of Genting’s resort might impose on the city’s cultural landscape.
“I think it’s an enormous opportunity that Genting is bringing to the city, to attract people from all around the world,” she said. “ Look at Art Basel. It only helps the cultural scene. Nobody seems upset about that.”