South Florida pari-mutuels fear slots competition from Miami International Airport
By Risa Polansky
In an attempt to allay local pari-mutuels' worry that slots at Miami International Airport would compete with their business, Miami-Dade commissioners voted Tuesday to make more secure a promise to keep airport slots behind security check points.
Commissioners have said since the slots idea popped up in June that, should they ultimately approve gaming in the airport at all, only ticketed passengers would have access to the machines.
Still, one area gambling establishment says even discussing the concept is having negative repercussions.
"Just the threat of slot machines at Miami International Airport has already affected our business," said Barbara Havenick, president and CEO of West Flagler Associates.
Flagler Dog Track reopened last month as Magic City Casino in debuting 700 Las Vegas-style slot machines, among other new-and-improved amenities.
The economic bust has held up plans to add more slots, though Flagler officials continue to pursue another development phase, Ms. Havenick told commissioners.
And even the prospect of gaming at the airport seems to have added another roadblock to what has already been in this economy a tough financing process: banks seem even less likely to lend to Magic City Casino with potential competition in the works, she said.
Voters in January 2008 agreed to allow the Vegas-style slots at pari-mutuels here.
When they did, the pari-mutuel facilities pledged to funnel a portion of their profits to the local governments — about 1.5% after the state takes its 50%.
At maximum capacity, those slots are projected to make about $7.5 million for the county, budget chief Jennifer Glazer-Moon said.
But because there are fewer machines now than planned, she said, the slots should generate about $1.5 million a year, ramping up to $2.5 million in three years.
Magic City Casino has already put aside $50,000 for Miami-Dade, Ms. Havenick said.
But the county move to consider airport gaming is not in the spirit of that partnership, she said.
The pari-mutuels' agreement with the county — which makes the payments contractual, not voluntary as some have claimed — contains a clause that says if the county takes action that could reduce slot machine revenues at a pari-mutuel, the county and company would have to sit down and discuss it.
But, noted County Attorney R.A. Cuevas Jr., there's also a clause that says the county is never obligated to change the agreement.
Should a pari-mutuel sue to stop making payments because of the airport slots, he said he believes that clause would cinch a win for the county.
Commissioners and administrators stressed throughout Tuesday's discussion that they don't consider airport slots to be competition to local gambling establishments if they're installed behind security where only ticketed passengers can reach them.
Still, the lawmakers voiced concerns over damaging their relationship with the local pari-mutuels, which are major job generators here.
They acknowledged also that future commissioners could change this commission's staunch "post-security" policy, which they pinpointed as local gambling institutions' overarching fear.
To address it, they voted to work with pari-mutuels to tweak the gambling agreements.
The idea is, should lawmakers ever vote to allow slots in areas before passengers pass airport security checkpoints, that would kill the clause that keeps the county from any obligation to change the terms.
Commissioners decided also that, should the airport's slot machines project pan out, they'd allow only Miami-Dade pari-mutuels to bid to operate them.
It seems, though, that the discussion and action may end up moot.
Assistant County Attorney Jess McCarty told commissioners at the meeting that state approval of airport slots is "a long shot."
But to keep open options for generating more revenue for the aviation department, which expects annual operating and debt service costs to skyrocket in five years, they voted in the end to approve a quarter-horse permit application the department submitted to the state.
A state racing permit is the first requirement of several steps toward airport slots.