To his peril, a lone civic voice questions casino juggernaut
By Michael Lewis
Finally, someone has shown the courage to publically question the opening of Miami to massive casino resorts.
As a reward for so doing, some of Beacon Council CEO Frank Nero's furious board members want him gone.
How, after all, could he dare doubt in public the claim of big-time gambling that it would finally make a real city out of small-time Miami?
Doesn't he realize that being Las Vegas east is the best thing that could happen to us?
And how does an economic development director dare to speak out on our biggest economic question when some of his board members have just climbed aboard the casino gravy train?
Bear in mind that Mr. Nero didn't oppose casinos. He just raised questions about what they might do to Miami's economy and quality of life.
Bear in mind also that he said he was speaking for himself, not his board, which hasn't taken a stand on casinos. He says the board might eventually support them.
What he did ask, however, is a fair review before the legislature makes massive casinos a state partner, regulated by Florida and paying the state for the license to be a cash-bloated oligopoly.
Unfortunately, he's alone in our civic community. Just as Miami Today pleaded last week for someone in charge to speak out rather than let the casino tank roll over us unimpeded, Mr. Nero's conscience and professional role led him to be the first to raise the issues in public.
Shortly thereafter, the heavyweight Florida Chamber of Commerce went farther, opposing the bid for the state to permit resort casinos in this region. Mr. Nero spoke from a professional development perspective; the state chamber spoke from a business viewpoint, saying casinos hurt business.
We might have to wait until hell freezes over before a local chamber of commerce shows the same courage. Too many members — like Beacon Council board members — either are on the casino gravy train or hope to be.
Mr. Nero followed his statement with a call for an independent taskforce to probe the issue for a year before the legislature votes. No doubt a cooling-off is vital because, as he correctly notes, we're seeing a typical Miami reaction, rushing after hot deals that often become busts.
And remember, big development deals are his business — in this case, a Genting proposal to build what probably would become the world's largest casino.
In fact, Mr. Nero is in unique position to assess a flood of the globe's biggest casino operators targeting downtown. When he was a New Jersey elected official he watched casino interests hire the lobbyists, law firms and economists and spread money around to anyone with political connections to gain casino licenses.
At the time, he backed the casinos. "I drank the Kool-Aid," he says now.
And, he recounts, years later, in 1984, he was asked to become the first executive director of the New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which invests casinos' payments to the state. He read all the casino studies then, and now wonders if, had he taken the post, things might have turned out differently in Atlantic City.
What did happen, he says, is that the mob got into the service industries feeding those casinos. It got into the casino schools.
Few of the high rollers that casinos promised ever showed up, and it was people living nearby who lost at the tables. (If we reflect, there aren't enough high rollers on the face of the globe to fill the 1.275 million square feet of casino space that Genting plans for Miami. We'd need tens of thousands of them every moment around the clock.)
Costly social problems like alcoholism, drug-dealing and prostitution proliferated. New Jersey lowered taxes on casinos and cut back regulation. Promises made became promises broken.
The projections of cash that casinos would bring to Atlantic City failed to note where that money had been spent before but wouldn't be in the future. Casinos opened on temporary licenses and never followed through on pledges.
But everything was bulldozed through, with key folks on casino payrolls.
As for local business, five-sixths of all bars and restaurants in Atlantic City were gone once the casinos arrived and sucked up the business, he says. Think what might happen to downtown, Wynwood and the Design District.
In fact, he noted, every single problem in New Jersey is a danger here too.
Finally, once it got casinos, Atlantic City never developed its economy and never prospered — a danger Mr. Nero also fears here.
If we want to be just fun, sun and gambling, Mr. Nero said, license massive casinos — but be aware that if we do the industries he was hired to bring here will never give Miami a look.
In fact, he says, forget all about One Community One Goal, the $600,000, year-long drive the Beacon Council is wisely spearheading today to help bring high-paying jobs to Miami-Dade. With gambling, he says, the high-paying industries will never develop. (And remember, we might add, big-time gambling is a low-paying industry that Genting proudly says requires little education.)
The face of Miami, Mr. Nero fears, would change forever to a gambling destination. The visitor industry, now providing 11% of jobs, would be our only big industry.
While he didn't mention it, mammoth casinos would even distort the visitor industry, which now brings millions of well-heeled global guests who often become investors and residents and even entrepreneurs. A large percentage of them would skip a casino town. Some might visit, but put down roots? Not likely.
And as realty professionals know, those roots are today keeping our residential real estate world alive. Foreign buyers now are all that's saving us from a massive real estate plunge.
Mr. Nero wants the governor to name a blue-ribbon team to probe the casino issue impartially. But why is he speaking out when nobody else in an official role has the wisdom or courage to join in?
For one thing, he said recalling his New Jersey days, he doesn't want to assess his economic development career in five years and ask: "Why didn't I speak out? Why didn't I say something?"
For doing so, his board should be applauding, not asking for his head.
Perhaps he was also goaded to speak out by hearing Genting's sales pitch for its casino before civic leaders at the Four Seasons downtown. Twice, speakers referred to Beacon Council support, yet despite his open door he says he has yet to speak to a Genting official.
We don't share Mr. Nero's open-mindedness on big-time gambling in the face of the evidence and his own experience. Even the state chamber is going too easy, offering to consider massive casinos if we shut down much of the smaller-time gambling we now have.
But we cheer both Mr. Nero and the state chamber for taking stands. As we noted last week, the worst sin is saying nothing in the face of legislation to immutably change our community. As a business leader, you're either for or against the likely outcome.
We have disagreed with Mr. Nero before; we might again. But we admire his courage in speaking out when others stand idly by or take gambling's payoff jobs that fly in the face of their civic offices.
It should be possible in Miami to disagree civilly. It should be possible to hold a forum such as the one Mr. Nero plans late this year to look at all sides of the casino question, though we believe the dangers to our way of life that big-time gambling poses are clear.
As Mr. Nero notes, once Florida licenses massive casinos and depends on their revenues to prop up the budget, casinos will call the shots forever. The Omni casino plans, he says, are "a license to print money from the locals.... Believe me, it will be a vacuum cleaner."
The community, he says, doesn't know what or who they're dealing with. And, once we find out, it's far too late to reverse course. The time is now.
Mr. Nero is not trying singlehandedly to block gambling: "I'm not planning to stand in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square." But, he says, "I have a professional responsibility to do this."
So, we might add, do others here. But Mr. Nero so far stands alone — unless his board cuts his legs out from under him.
Love casinos or hate them, Miami must not become a place where it's punishable to question a revolution in our way of life. To see what that leads to, look to Cuba. Too many Miamians left that evil to allow it here.
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