Sands pulls back its Miami casino bid, criticizes Disney, Genting
By Scott Blake
When Malaysia's Genting Group took the lead in the push to bring mega-casinos to Miami, Las Vegas Sands Corp. was in the background, planning and waiting.
Now, Las Vegas Sands is preparing to wait until next year.
Resigned that mega-casino bills in the Florida Legislature are all but dead for this year, Sands representatives this week said the company is "pulling back" from the issue, will wait to see what happens in the November state election and regroup for next year's legislative session.
"It's time for the major gaming interests to sit back and let the Legislature do its work," said Andy Abboud, vice president of government relations and community development for Sands.
That's not all he and another Sands representative had to say: They blamed the Walt Disney Co., the Florida Chamber of Commerce and even Genting for messing up their chances this time around.
Mr. Abboud criticized Disney and the Florida Chamber for coming out against the mega-casino legislation.
"They acted out of selfish financial self-interest," he said. "They're afraid of competition in Miami."
Nick Iarossi, a Tallahassee lobbyist representing Sands, singled out Genting for spooking some of Miami's business and civic leaders by publicly touting the massive size and scope of its proposed Resorts World Miami — a resort complex that would be much bigger than any other in South Florida.
"Genting's missteps made the bill all the more difficult to pass," Mr. Iarossi said.
Asked to comment on the matter, Disney didn't mince words.
"We are pleased that expansion of casino gambling in Florida died in the state legislature," said Walt Disney World spokesman Bryan Malenius.
"Voters have rejected gambling time and again over the years and we have long agreed with that position," Mr. Malenius said. "Gambling runs counter to Florida's family-friendly tourism brand and it would hurt efforts to diversify Florida's economy."
Representatives of the Florida chamber and Genting did not respond to requests for comment.
Genting officials have maintained that mega-casinos would produce tens of thousands of jobs in South Florida at a time the economy is struggling, and that concerns it would hurt existing businesses and increase crime are either unfounded or overblown.
The Florida chamber, meanwhile, has said it will oppose any further expansion of gambling in Florida, as "it is not the type of economic expansion or diversification we want for Florida's future."
Critics of the Florida chamber have said it seems to be parroting Disney's agenda and note the various ties between the two, including Anthony Connelly, the 2012 chairman of the chamber's board. Mr. Connelly also is senior vice president and chief financial officer for Disney's US parks and resorts.
Florida Chamber CEO and President Marc Wilson, who spoke out against mega-casinos during appearances in Miami last fall, has said that, although Disney is a chamber member, it has no more influence than any other company in the organization.
Mr. Abboud expressed frustration with the situation, especially since efforts during the current legislative session to regulate or eliminate so-called Internet cafes seem to be fading, while measures to permit mega-casinos have been all but squashed.
He suggested that if Disney and the Florida chamber are truly against the expansion of gambling, as opposed to just giant casino resorts that might rival Disney's parks, legislators would be likely to take action to stop the many storefront Internet cafes that have been opening around Florida.
"People need to take a long look at Disney and the Florida chamber," Mr. Abboud said. "They've allowed the worst types of gaming to continue."
Meanwhile, he said, Sands is not abandoning its plans for Florida, and specifically Miami.
The company, he said, is still interested in a several-block area in the Park West section of downtown Miami controlled by the Miami World Center group. The site is less than a mile from the Miami Herald property along Biscayne Bay where Genting plans to build Resorts World Miami.
"The reality is there's always going to be a demand for the high-end gaming market in Florida," Mr. Abboud added.
Mr. Iarossi, the Sands lobbyist, suggested that Genting mishandled the issue, noting the company "made a big money splash" by spending several hundred million dollars on downtown property that drew attention and scrutiny long before the legislative session began.
He said Sands had been working on support for casino legislation in Florida before the issue arose last year, but did it in a way that didn't stir opposition.
"Disney and the chamber didn't come out against anything last year" regarding gambling, Mr. Iarossi added.
Last fall, Genting proudly trumpeted its proposal at a news conference it hosted at the exclusive Four Seasons hotel on Brickell Avenue, but the sheer size of the $3 billion-plus project seemed to overwhelm some in Miami's business and civic circles.
Meanwhile, Mr. Iarossi said, Sands was quietly developing plans for its own Miami resort geared more to fit in with existing hotels and related businesses rather than to overshadow them.
"We proposed something with 1,500 hotel rooms," he added. "Genting's proposal had 5,200 rooms."
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