BRADENTON --It's a good bet that soon after the new Florida legislature convenes on March 4, 2014, lawmakers will be pushing a very hot-button issue -- gambling. Proponents like State Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford want constitutional amendments that would expand Florida's restricted gambling laws. Their opposition, which includes Disney and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, say more than just gambling is at stake.
So-called "high-stakes gambling" casinos in Florida (Poker, Blackjack and Baccarat) have been the exclusive domain of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The 2010 Seminole Gaming Compact guaranteed privileges for Seminole casinos until the year 2040, but a provision on the high-stakes monopoly, granting them that concession, is set to expire in 2015.
Florida has received nearly $1.5 billion in revenue from the Seminole Tribe of Florida since the compact was approved.
Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, wants any changes made to the gambling laws to focus on economic growth. Richter also supports developing a more robust gaming commission.
On October 28, 2013, the Senate Gaming Committee started taking testimony from the Spectrum Gaming Group. Spectrum had just completed a two part, 708 page, Gambling Impact Study for the Florida Senate and House Representatives.
The first part provided overviews of the many aspects associated with a gambling environment. The second part of the study reviewed some of the impacts related to Florida's existing gambling industry, as it is now.
The report claims to be a far-reaching scope of research and analysis, but Spectrum states that they only review the data, and not make recommendations from their reports; but that guidance is sure to come in the form of testimony from soon-to-be seated Legislators.
Spectrum commissioned the University of Florida to survey residents' acceptance on what is called destination casinos. One of the finding revealed, that even among those local residence who favor casinos, they 'wouldn't want to live near one.'
Destination casinos are gambling islands of a sort, targeted to be placed at a particular location, one with a specialized demographic or business model that is most likely to succeed in or near a gambling environment.
Both Gaetz and Weatherford favor changes to the gambling laws that would mostly leave the decision (where to allow gambling) with local governments; reducing the threat some see in a statewide gambling referendum.
Possibly as soon as the 2014 elections, state representatives could have a bill on the ballot: a referendum that would change the status quo of the law by offering local governments more say in the issue.
One of the many dangers in keeping the decisions local, is a higher probability of corruption. Florida already ranks #1 in the country with the most government officials arrested for illegal abuse of their offices.
The largest opponent to statewide gambling law changes comes from Disney, fearing the family image their area offers would be damaged, while having another industry sucking up the vacation dollars that come to Florida.
If legislators permit an expansion of the state's gambling laws, the Florida Panthers NHL hockey team could be the first major sports team linked to a destination casino.
Michael Yormark, president and CEO of Sunrise Sports and Entertainment, and the Panthers team, proposes a hotel, spa and casino, surrounded by 50,000 sq. ft of meeting space adjacent to the BB&T concert and special event center in the city of Sunrise, Broward County.
Yormark says the casino would blend into the community, with hundreds, not thousands of hotel rooms, located in proximity to the Sawgrass Expressway, an airport, 350 outlet stores and across from a sports complex; potentially making Sunrise one of Florida's most visited tourist destinations.
This Yormark story very much resembles what could be Destination Long Bar -- close to an airport; a sports complex; hotel rooms and a convention center on site; expressway and outlet mall nearby. If this meets criteria, the Long Bar Pointe project may have other plans.
It wouldn't be such a big leap to see a destination casino in the works at Long Bar Pointe if the developers continue to flirt with the map and text changes to the Land Development Codes here in Manatee County.
As the gambling issue continues to unfold, residents and citizens alike should be asking just what their local lawmakers would do if handed the power to gamble with Manatee County's future.
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