Palm Beach County considers slot machines to keep up with expanded South Florida gambling
County Commission votes Tuesday on slot machine referendum
By Andy Reid, Sun Sentinel
2:06 p.m. EST, December 17, 2011
Palm Beach County
gambling supporters are betting that slot machines offer a way into South Florida’s proposed casino gold rush.
Broward and Miami-Dade counties are asking the Legislature for the chance to build Las Vegas-style casinos, and Palm Beach County business and political leaders worry they could lose out on the tourism, jobs and tax revenues expected to follow expanded gambling.
To stay competitive, Palm Beach County gambling proponents want to at least get slot machines at their only existing parimutuel facility, the Palm Beach Kennel Club.
Allowing slot machines would open the door to more of the casino-style gambling long advocated by kennel club owners, the influential Rooney family.
Palm Beach County can take another step toward expanded gambling on Tuesday, when the County Commission takes its final vote on whether to hold a referendum in November, asking voters to allow slot machines.
“Whether we like it or not, we are in gambling territory,” said Palm Beach County Commission Chairwoman Shelley Vana, pointing out that slots already are allowed in neighboring Broward County. “We need to keep our hand in there so we are not just the also-ran for tourism in South Florida.
“Maybe [slot machine gaming] is a foot in the door.”
While supporters trumpet the potential infusion of cash into the Palm Beach County economy, gambling opponents warn of the social
costs expanded gambling could bring.
Slot machines that could further enrich the kennel club also threaten to fuel gambling addictions and lead to more crime in already-struggling neighborhoods near the dog track.
Slot machines and expanded gambling don’t fit in with Palm Beach County’s taxpayer-backed push in recent years to attract biotech companies and associated high-tech industries, according to state Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm
“There certainly [can be] a downgrading of the local area,” said Pafford, who opposes allowing slot machines. “People come to gamble and they blow their money. … Is that the direction that we want to go?”
The county’s proposed referendum is contingent on the Florida Supreme Court upholding a lower court ruling allowing voter-approved slot machines at parimutuels without amending the state constitution.
Palm Beach County’s measure aims to limit slot machines to the kennel club, instead of allowing them at other sites such as the defunct jai-alai fronton in Mangonia Park.
“With the change in the lay of the land in gaming, the opportunity to put slots [at the kennel club] will continue to allow them to be viable and competitive,” said Dennis Grady, president of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches. “In this day and age, you want to see them continue to expand.”
The Palm Beach Kennel Club, on Congress Avenue and Belvedere Road across from Palm Beach International Airport, opened nearly 80 years ago.
It owns 60 acres, employs 650 people and features live greyhound racing, simulcast horse racing and poker.
The owners, the Rooney family — who own the Pittsburgh Steelers — have lobbied for years to get slot machines and other expanded gaming.
The family includes U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Tequesta, and state Rep. Patrick Rooney Jr., R-West Palm Beach, who is president of the kennel club.
Voter approval of slot machines would be more than just a boon for the Rooney family, said Mat Forrest, kennel club lobbyist.
Slot machines could bring more tax revenue to help the surrounding Westgate neighborhood, a designated redevelopment area in need of sewer lines, drainage improvements and other infrastructure upgrades, he said.
“Property values are going to go up,” Forrest said. “It’s a benefit to the overall area.”
Yet one of the kennel club’s closest neighbors, Belvedere Baptist Church, isn’t convinced that increased tax revenue is worth the problems expanded gambling could bring.
The Rev. Samuel Henry worries that slot machines feed a gambling habit much more addictive than the dog racing and poker already occurring across the street from his church.
Henry, from Mississippi, said he has seen increases in pawn shops and crime follow slot machines and casinos to the Gulf Coast. Now he worries about expanded gambling making things harder for Westgate.
The County Commission needs to “do its homework” before opening the door to slot machines, Henry said.
“You just bring in trouble,” Henry said. “You are trying to build your economy on people’s addictions.”