Members drop out as casino club brings ouch after ouch
By Michael Lewis
"I wouldn't join any club that would have me as a member," comedian Groucho Marx famously quipped.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce is reversing that. It won't accept as a member just anyone who writes a $25,000 check to join.
The refusal isn't comedy. It's the latest act in the casino industry's drama to remake Florida in its own image.
Firm lines separate those who support this community from the outsiders who would turn Miami into a mixture of Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Singapore's dictatorship and then spread the manure statewide.
About that $25,000 check: it was from Genting's Resorts World Miami, which plans the world's biggest casino on the site of the Miami Herald, the Omni Center and perhaps 10 acres owned by our public schools.
According to Sunshine State News, Genting general counsel Jessica Hoppe handed the check to the Florida Chamber's chairman. He wisely handed it right back, rejecting Genting as a member.
"The Florida Chamber has a longstanding position, dating back to the early 1990s, opposing the expansion of gambling," said spokeswoman Edie Ousley. "Our position is not for sale."
The price of the Associated Industries of Florida isn't as clear. It's pushing massive casinos for South Florida but won't reveal if Malaysia-based Genting is a member. What is known is that chamber Chairman Erika Alba's law firm is a Genting lobbyist.
Genting had no trouble becoming a member of the Greater Miami Chamber, which took $10,000 for its top level membership and spotlighted Genting at this month's board of governors meeting.
The Greater Miami Chamber is coy, saying its casinos position is due later, but its bulletin calls Genting's plan "iconic." Its casino forum stacked the deck to feature six gambling backers to just one opponent.
But as casinos buy their way through Florida's leadership, support may be waning. Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, bubbling at Genting's unveiling months ago, now says he's unsure about casinos' impact.
Recent events should sway others who haven't yet taken casino checks. As the industry reveals more of itself, there's more to dislike.
First, Genting bragged it could make Miami a real, big-time city. Then President Colin Au branded Genting a sin industry. Then last week he twice used barnyard language at a hearing on gambling expansion, shocking state senators.
Mr. Au stretched so far in claiming casino benefits that even his senate spear-carrier, Ellyn Bogdanoff, was appalled. Turn it off, she said.
Mr. Au told senators three resort casinos would create 100,000 permanent jobs and 50,000 construction jobs, pump $10 billion into Florida's economy and attract 6 million new tourists a year.
Replied Sen. Bogdanoff, who is trying to protect waning credibility: "There is no way you are going to get 100,000 jobs."
Later, she followed up with a reporter, "They actually kill their own case because, based on what they want to do, they're going to put all the pari-mutuels out of business and every restaurant in Miami — and a couple hotels, too."
That from a Genting henchman.
Good as Mr. Au tried to make outlandish statistics sound, the quality of life he touted makes you cringe:
"Jobs in destination resorts are for anyone, especially those who are underprivileged and cannot go to university or college. We also hire graduates from universities and technical colleges and train them. They work in air-conditioned facilities. They have uniforms and they are in the resort environment."
In other words, these jobs are better than hanging out on a street corner. They're even better than sweeping streets because they're indoors. There is no need for education. And — joy of joys — workers get to wear uniforms.
Is this our dream for the new overwhelming South Florida industry, all of us in uniform?
But let him keep talking: the more he says, the more Colin Au becomes Colin Ouch.
In the hearing, he admitted that Genting pays 70% New York casino tax. It's trying to stiff Florida at 10%, thus nudging legislators touting casinos to alter their bills to cut pari-mutuels' 35% taxes to 10% too and also hand pari-mutuels all casino games.
Sen. Bogdanoff reiterates that her sole aim is to rein in gambling.
In the process, however, she seeks three mega-casinos, each larger than anything now on the globe. And she's likely to give state pari-mutuels the green light to become full casinos.
Ouch. Can there be a more transparent contradiction?
Her partner in the bill is state Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miamian who joins Mr. Au and Sen. Bogdanoff in becoming an Ouch.
Safely distant in Orlando, Rep. Fresen told the Tiger Bay Club of Central Florida that casinos are more politically viable in Miami because Cuban-Americans don't share the moral concern about gambling of some other Republicans: "They don't have that internal conflict with gaming; it is part of their culture."
But that so-called Cuban gambling culture in Havana was headed by Meyer Lansky, a Russian emigrant who grew up in New York, ran Cuba's gambling with an American mob and wound up life in Miami Beach, not Little Havana.
The parallel would be a Malaysian gambling dictatorship plunked down in Miami. Unthinkable, right?
Meanwhile, as Sen. Bogdanoff was reining in gambling via mega-casinos, Casino Miami Jai-Alai last week wheeled in 1,050 shiny slot machines geared to separate Miamians from their pay when the renovated Florida Gaming Corp. site opens in January, proving there's more than one way to skin a gambler.
In Miami, every economic level gets to be a loser.
Casinos are flocking here because we still have something they can get from us. Make no mistake: casinos aren't coming to bring us gold, they're coming to mine gold and carry it back home until Miami's economy crumbles under gambling's weight and the mine runs out.
Depressed Atlantic City's smallest casino, ACH, which couldn't find a buyer, last week got state approval to stay open another year with a $24.3 million infusion and promptly laid off 150 workers.
Casinos aren't immune from hard times — they just spread the hard times around. Everybody gets to be a loser.
But at least those who still have jobs work in air conditioning and have a uniform. In a casino-dominated town, it can't get much better than that.
But that's nowhere near good enough for Miami, which unlike Atlantic City or Las Vegas or Singapore has all manner of valuables — ranging from lifestyle to global positioning — to lose under casino domination.
Miami shouldn't join the casino club. Gambling isn't a jackpot; it's an economic burden. If you're still on the fence, cancel your casino club membership.
To read the entire issue of Miami Today online, subscribe to e -Miami Today, an exact digital replica of the printed edition.