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Hotel Developers Bet on Miami Gambling Vote : Casinos: With four gaming initiatives on the Florida ballot, big-name investors are lining up for a piece of the action.

March 14, 1994|From Associated Press

MIAMI BEACH — Who could resist?

The city offers $60 million in incentives to build an oceanfront, convention-size hotel, and there is rampant talk of legalizing casino gambling.

Intrigued by prospects of building the first big hotel on Miami Beach in 26 years, the Ritz Carlton, Hyatt, Loews, Peabody and Marriott chains are jostling for prime property bordering the ultra-trendy Art Deco district. Big-name investors in bids opened last week include Ross Perot and CBS Chairman Laurence Tisch.

The hotel proposals--plans range from 756 to 900 rooms--buttress the city's belief that the area along the southern end of Miami Beach is thriving after years as a decaying front-porch perch for senior citizens in residential hotels.

"This hotel works with or without gaming, and certainly we would proceed in any environment," said Jonathan Tisch, president of Loews Hotels and nephew of the CBS chief. "There are demand generators that will keep Miami Beach busy."

The new vitality is easy to see.

Aging hotels once relinquished to rats are now sporting fresh pastel paint and neon, neighborhoods have been spruced up, and roller-bladers whiz past fashionable cafes.

And then the unknown quantity--gambling.

Casino operations are banned by the Florida Constitution unless a majority of voters agree to a change. Four competing ideas are afloat to put the issue on the ballot this November.

Doug Sessions, executive director of the Proposition for Limited Casinos, believes the state is ripe for change even though two previous repeal attempts failed, the latest in 1986 by a 2-1 margin.

"Early polling and surveying have told us that a lot of the attitudes in Florida have changed," Sessions said. "The economic climate has changed dramatically as well. You've got casino operations springing up all over the Southeast."

Gambling on Indian reservations has spread to 27 states, card rooms are legal in 10, riverboats in six and casinos in five.

In Florida, another initiative, the Proposition for County Choice Gaming, would allow county voters to decide what forms of gambling they wanted.

"We think that the market will take care of itself in the sense that there will only be a certain number that will be economically viable," said Michael Levine, chairman of the county choice plan.

But the market might already be crowded.

Casinos are as close as the cruise ships docking in five Florida cities or a short hop to the Bahamas. Meanwhile, parimutuel betting is available at 35 horse tracks, dog tracks and jai alai frontons, and the state lottery is 6 years old.

Dade County, which includes Miami and Miami Beach, is the only county to back casino gambling to date. Sessions' measure would recruit votes by allowing casinos at parimutuels, seven other casinos on land or water plus one guaranteed in Dade County.

Miami Beach is the odds-on locale, and the new hotel would be a beneficiary. A likely location is a parking lot across from the city's convention center and three blocks from the barren 5.5-acre hotel site.

Ever-enterprising developer Donald Trump also has a potential casino project in mind on a 35-acre parcel owned by German developer Thomas Kramer on Miami's South Beach.

So far, there has been little opposition to the current drive for legalized gambling.

But one critic, Miami Beach Mayor Seymour Gelber, says a casino would wipe out the city's character by creating a "gambling factory."

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