Tucked into the gambling bill that was approved this week by the Florida Legislature is a provision that could lead to the biggest expansion of betting ever in Florida. Not just sportsbooks, but a license transfer clause that could turn small-scale pari-mutuel gambling houses into sprawling casinos.
The agreement between the state and the Seminole Tribe allows existing pari-mutuels to relocate to other, possibly larger, locations. It also allows gambling licenses to be sold or transferred, which means new casinos or gambling venues could open up in places that never had gambling.
But there are hurdles to cross before that happens, from federal agency approval to court challenges to municipal ordinances.
Still, the promise of license sales makes pari-mutuels such as the Palm Beach Kennel Club infinitely more valuable and ripe for the picking by large resorts — such as the Fontainebleau Miami Beach or even Trump National Doral — that are either hungry for gambling orin need of cash infusions.
Even so, Palm Beach Kennel Club President Pat Rooney, Jr. says he’s not interested in selling just yet.
“That’s the lowest of all the possibilities right now,” Rooney said. “We’ve been there for 80-some years, so the likelihood that we would move it is pretty low.”
Another option, Rooney said, is to relocate the club. That’s an appealing alternative because it provides the opportunity to downsize from the existing 50-acre property to an adjacent 11-acre property the club already owns, he said.
“If we can move it, that gives us flexibility, like with your business and your land if you want to sell it or lease it to somebody,” Rooney said.
Gambling deal brings 35-year fight for casinos near fruition
Nonetheless, allowing current gambling businesses, such as horse and former greyhound racetracks, to sell their coveted licenses could achieve a decades-long ambition for Florida gambling proponents and hopefuls. Legalizing casino gambling first appeared on the Florida ballot 35 years ago, but voters shot it down.
It wasn’t until nearly 20 years ago that voters finally began allowing expanded gambling at state-licensed pari-mutuels. For the most part, those betting parlors today aren’t geared to Las Vegas-style high-rollers.
However, the gambling deal state lawmakers approved this week potentially opens the door to major investments by foreign and American businesses, from a Malaysian tourism and gambling conglomerate to former President Donald Trump’s Miami area golf mecca.
And there is reason to believe there is a market for more expansive, Vegas-like casinos in South Florida.
While pari-mutuels with card rooms and simulcast racing tend to draw low-key retirees and locals looking for weekend fun, massive casino resorts, such as the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, are tourist hotspots that can rake in billions.
Could a gambling casino boost fortunes at Trump’s Doral resort?
The potential to turn the Trump National Doral into a gambling destination is surely not lost on the former president and his family.
“Many people consider Trump Doral to be unmatched from a gaming perspective,” Eric Trump, the son of the former president, told The Washington Post in March. “At 700 acres, properties just don’t exist of that size and quality in South Florida, let alone in the heart of Miami.”
But it’s also property in need of additional revenue, according to financial statements cited in a January report released by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.
That report said golf resort revenue at the Doral property plummeted from $77.2 million in 2019 to $44.1 million. Food and beverage sales also sustained a dramatic drop, from $5.5 million to $1.6 million.
An influx of gambling revenue could go a long way toward helping Trump National get back on its feet. A gambling license also could make the resort appealing to a new buyer, giving Trump, who is facing a slew of legal issues related to actions during his presidency, a major cash injection.
“It wouldn’t surprise me that that would be the case,” Doral Mayor Juan Carlos Bermudez said of the idea that Trump might seek a buyer. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a gambling license would increase the value of the property.”
In a preemptive strike last week, the Doral city council unanimously passed an emergency ordinance prohibiting gambling without first putting the issue out to residents for a vote.
“Gambling changes the composition of what occurs in the community,” Bermudez said. “We have tried to build a city that is pretty dynamic, but family-friendly. We have a lot of young families, and I don’t believe the residents would want it.”
Still, they might not be able to stop it, said gaming attorney Larry Walters of Walters Law Group in Central Florida.
“The real issue is whether a preliminary injunction would be issued at the beginning to prevent the opening of a gaming facility,” he said. “That would be the key fight at the beginning.”
Doral city officials put roadblock in way of potential Trump casino project
If so, that fight could extend beyond Doral. The Fontainebleau in Miami Beach and the former Miami Herald building on Biscayne Bay are among other struggling properties said to be vying for gambling licenses.
The Fontainebleau in 2020 defaulted on a $975 million debt obligation, reported Bloomberg Law. Also in 2020, Genting Hong Kong Limited, the owner of the former Miami Herald building, suspended $3.4 billion in payments to creditors amid financial distress, reported the Miami Herald.
For Trump, whose three casino hotels in Atlantic City all went bankrupt, the fight to bring gambling to Florida has been a long one.
In 1998, he pushed the issue with then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who shot him down, saying at the time, “I’m not going to be bought by anybody,” the Washington Post reported.
Bush has not changed his stance, speaking out against the state’s new gambling agreement in a May 17 press release.
“At the time when our economy is poised for an unprecedented takeoff after taking a hit from the pandemic, now is not the time to expand casino gambling which will benefit a handful at the expense of many,” it read.
Gambling puts ‘soul’ of Miami-Dade County at stake, some say
It’s not just politics that are at play, though.Some communities simply do not want gambling, Walters, the gaming attorney, said.
“There are a lot of moral objections,” Walters said about neighborhoods that might not want casinos near schools or churches, if at all. “Now, whether those policy considerations are legitimate or not is another conversation.”
Whether for moral or other reasons, Florida in 2018 made its collective voice heard when voters passed by 71% a constitutional amendment prohibiting gambling expansion without a public vote.
That is something Armando Codina, executive chairman of Codina Partners — a leading developer of commercial properties in Doral and throughout Miami-Dade County — said the governor seemed to have forgotten when he steamrolled over the state constitution.
“So, the Legislature of Florida was going to preempt the will of the people locally, saying, ‘We know better than you, and we are superseding the voters,’” he said. “That’s what it said, and it’s written very plainly. None of these politicians even got elected with 71% of the vote.”
Codina called gambling “the most selfish industry in the world,” saying casinos could be a turn-off to businesses that might be considering moving to Florida.
“No businesses thrive in the shadow of casinos,” he said. “You have private equity and financial institutions that want to come here. They are not saying we need to turn Miami-Dade County into a big casino venue.”
Codina pointed out that the compact, trumpeted by Trump’s friend and ally Gov. Ron DeSantis chose 15 miles as the distance from the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood that a business would have to be to get a license. In the rest of the state, license transfers must be at least 100 miles away from a tribal gaming facility.
“What is just outside of the 15 miles, conveniently?” Codina said. “Fontainebleau and Trump National.”
The Hard Rock hotel is about 24 miles from Trump’s Doral property and about 21 from the Fountainebleau.
And Codina questioned DeSantis’ judgment and motivation for pushing the new agreement.
“DeSantis has been in the past kind of a libertarian, so this issue of imposing the state’s will on local communities, it doesn’t seem like him,” Codina said. “There is a lot of political pressure here. … Certainly the Trump name adds a lot of pressure to this issue.”
Still, Doral Mayor Bermudez said the city’s opposition to gambling has nothing to do with who owns the resort.
“It doesn’t change our position whether it’s President Trump or somebody else,” he said. “It’s really not a Trump issue; it’s a gambling issue. If you wanted it, I’d be telling you the same thing.”
The new agreement still requires federal approval by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is part of the Department of the Interior, Walters said. That approval, along with challenges from local municipalities such as Doral, could tie up things in court for years to come.
Indeed, only minutes after the Florida Legislature approved the new compact, John Sowinski, president of the anti-gambling group No Casinos, hinted at a potential legal battle.
“This fight is just beginning,” Sowinski wrote in a statement. “We are committed to ensuring that the will of the people, who voted by a remarkable 72% landslide to give Florida voters the exclusive right to authorize casino gambling in our state, will be respected.”
Codina could not agree more.
“There is nothing good to come out of this,” he said. “It’s not about money; it’s more about the soul of Miami-Dade County and what we want Miami to be.”