Mark Wilson: A Bet Florida Cannot Afford

By: Florida Chamber of Commerce

Grim economic news this month from Atlantic City is a harsh reminder of what Florida could one day face if we succumb to pressure to expand gambling and rely on the casino industry for jobs and economic growth. Three major Atlantic City casinos closed their doors permanently this month. A fourth closed earlier this year, and a fifth, the Trump Taj Majal, just announced that it will likely go out of business within two months. Together, these closures will leave more than 10,000 people without jobs and take more than $2 billion off the property tax rolls — a financial tsunami for this once vibrant seaside tourist destination.

Left behind is a steadily decaying shell of the city’s colorful past and a sad legacy of the unrealized prosperity promised 36 years ago when Atlantic City made history by opening the first legal casinos outside of Las Vegas. Most notable is the failure of the $2.4 billion Revel Casino Resort, which shut down Sept. 2, putting 3,100 employees out of work. Opened just over two years ago, it was heralded as a new concept “destination resort” that casino proponents promised would transform Atlantic City’s struggling economy. That may have a familiar ring to Floridians.

For the past three years, foreign and out-of-state casino conglomerates in Malaysia and Las Vegas have run a multi-million dollar lobbying and public relations campaign in an effort to legalize “destination resort” casinos in Florida. As we have done throughout the years, the Florida Chamber of Commerce stood with families and small business leaders, law enforcement and community leaders to defeat these efforts.

The difference between Florida’s bright economic outlook and Atlantic City’s casino-fueled economic collapse could not be greater.

Florida’s economy is moving in the right direction again. In fact, a recent Wall Street Journal article pointed to our state as a model for economic growth. Floridians are getting back to work. Since December 2010, more than 600,000 private-sector jobs have been created. Florida has also recently ranked second in the U.S. for tech-sector job creation.

Our state’s population continues to grow at record rates, and we believe Florida has likely already surpassed New York to become the third-most populous state in the nation. Additionally, the efforts of Florida’s business community, the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott have led our state to regain our AAA bond rating, pay down $3.5 billion in debt and enjoy a record budget surplus for 2014. Florida’s family-friendly tourism brand continues to draw vacationing families from across the U.S. and around the world. After four consecutive years of record-breaking tourism numbers, Florida welcomed more than 50 million visitors in the first six months of 2014. Equally important, more than 1 million Floridians work in the tourism industry. And it’s not all about tourism. Our beautiful weather, business friendly climate and zero personal income tax make starting or relocating a business, family or venture in Florida an easy choice.

The choice for visitors and investors would not be so easy if Florida’s family-friendly reputation gave way to mega-casinos a la Atlantic City and Las Vegas. It is not by accident that 16 Fortune 500 companies have chosen Florida as their home, while Nevada has none outside the gambling industry.

Although our state does allow limited forms of gambling in parts of South Florida and on Native American tribal lands, Florida voters have wisely rejected wholesale legalization of mega-casinos numerous times over the years. They know that further expansion of gambling is simply a bad bet for our economy, our communities and our family-friendly tourism image.

Florida’s leaders should continue their focus on improving education, attracting new businesses and diversifying our economy with high-paying jobs to ensure a solid financial foundation for our state and its residents.