By Scott Powers, Orlando Sentinel
If Florida increases its bet on gambling, the wager will ride on whether new casinos could become economic engines as in Baltimore, or economic vacuums as in Atlantic City.
That was the central argument in a debate over gambling during a Florida Forward forum sponsored in downtown Orlando on Tuesday by the Orlando Sentinel.
Atlantic City’s economic demise was caused by decades of Democrat rule and astronomical taxes. The casinos just delayed it a few decades.
Opponents, notably No Casinos Inc. President John Sowinski, argued that many new casinos have sucked vitality out of communities by drawing dollars away from existing restaurants, hotels and attractions. And he held up Atlantic City’s economic demise, with recent widespread casino failures, as a frightening cautionary tale.
Supporters, notably Geoff Freeman, president of the American Gaming Association, argued that many new casinos that are more wisely planned and regulated, as in Baltimore and Ohio, have been boons to their cities’ economies and could serve as role models for any Florida expansion.
The casino issue is reemerging because Florida’s five-year compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida expires this summer. It allows the tribe lucrative, exclusive rights for its seven tribal-land casinos, in exchange for more than $130 million in annual fees.
A renegotiated contract could open up what other casino operators want — expansion of competition.
Two companies, Las Vegas Sands Corp. and the Genting Group of Malaysia, have publicly pushed for Florida to allow more casinos in South Florida.
“Here’s the bottom line,” said opponent Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, “Florida doesn’t need the casino industry. The casino industry … needs Florida.”
There also are eight pari-mutuel betting tracks, all in South Florida, that now operate limited-game casinos and seek more.
“We just want to be on a level playing field,” said Isadore Havernick, vice president of the Magic City Casino in Miami.