Would Las Vegas-Style Casinos Hurt Miami?

Miami Herald: Finally, several months after the initial euphoria over the announcement of a Malaysian company’s plans to build a $3 billion mega-casino in Miami, we are seeing the start of a serious debate over whether this would change this city for better or for worse. The battle over Miami’s soul has begun.

Should Miami become another Las Vegas, catering to wealthy Latin American and European gamblers? Or should it build on its status as the Latin American headquarters for multinational corporations, and center for international banking, health services, arts and education?

Or, to put it differently, does Miami want to be known as the home of one of the biggest mega-casinos in the world — if not the biggest one — assuming the Florida legislature approves it? Or does it prefer to be known as an international trade center that already has 1,000 multinational corporations, a brand new University of Miami Life Sciences and Technology Park, and an Art Basel annual fair that ranks among the world’s top fine arts shows?

Malaysia’s Genting Group announced in May that it has purchased The Miami Herald’s waterfront building for $236 million, as part of a plan to build a Resorts World Miami. The mega complex would have four ultra-modern hotels with a total of 5,000 rooms, two condominium towers with 1,000 units, more than 50 restaurants and 60 luxury shops.

According to Genting, the project will create 15,000 direct and indirect construction jobs, and another 30,000 permanent jobs. The mayors of Miami and Dade County have endorsed the project.

But Frank Nero, head of the Miami-Dade economic development agency known as the Beacon Council, broke the near unanimous chorus of support on Oct. 12, warning that the mega-casino project would siphon customers from hotels and restaurants elsewhere in Miami, and would scare away high-paying professional jobs from Miami.

“In Atlantic City, you had more than 300 restaurants and bars prior to the establishment of casinos,” Nero told me in a subsequent interview. “Now, there are fewer than 60 restaurants outside the casinos.”

What may be worse, mega-casinos would ruin Miami’s status as a growing international trade center. Despite its image abroad as a tourism spot, only 11 percent of Miami’s workforce is employed by hotels and restaurants, Nero said.

“If we allow casinos, it will be increasingly difficult to convince a German life science company, for instance, to locate a major research facility at the University of Miami’s new Life Science and Technology Park,” Nero said. “Their image of Miami is not going to be that of a hotbed of research.”

Asked about it, University of Miami President Donna Shalala told me that “I don’t think the introduction of a casino will affect our ability to attract top scientific researchers, since we are well established now as a world class university.” But she added, “I am not expressing an opinion for or against gambling” in Miami.

James Hughes, dean of Rutgers University School of Planning and Public Policy and co-author of a study on Atlantic City’s casinos, says there is a big difference between today’s Miami and both Atlantic City and Las Vegas when casinos were introduced there a few decades ago.

While in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, there was almost nothing before the casinos, “Miami is a completely different story,” Hughes said.

My opinion: It all depends on how Florida legislators would regulate mega-casinos. If gambling corporations are allowed to build giant resorts with blinking lights, surrounded by “Girls, Girls, Girls” signs, pawn shops, and casino company buses roaming the city offering free rides to take seniors to the gambling places, it will kill Miami as an international business center.

On the other hand, if legislators demand that mega-casinos have a discreet appearance, much like the slot machine and poker facilities at Hallandale Beach’s Gulfstream Park, where you don’t see huge casino signs from the street, and if there are laws to prevent Miami from becoming a Mecca for prostitutes, drunks, pickpockets and con artists, the proposed casino resort could be a good addition to the city.

But, for now, I’m not neutral. Considering how vulnerable Florida legislators are likely to be to big money promises at a time of financial crisis, I’m afraid they will be pretty lax at the time of authorizing full-fledged casinos. Unless the regulators convince me otherwise, I think mega-casinos will hurt Miami.


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