When the Fontainebleau Hotel sought zoning changes to allow additional ballroom space, Miami Beach Commissioners delayed the discussion over concerns about parking, competition for the Convention Center Hotel, and gambling as a potential future use. The Fontainebleau’s owners argued they needed the additional ballroom space to be more competitive with similar sized hotels in the market. With State and City prohibitions on gambling, Commissioners were later persuaded to allow the zoning changes and bring what they saw as much needed parking for the hotel’s workforce.
Fast forward 18 months, and the Fontainebleau has received all zoning and land use board approvals to construct a standalone ballroom structure on a parking lot across 44th Street from the main Fontainebleau campus with an overhead pedestrian bridge, a new grand ballroom, junior ballroom, and additional meeting rooms. The space is intended to “strengthen the hotel’s operations and bring more quality events to Miami Beach,” attorney Mickey Marrero wrote in the application to the Historic Preservation Board for the new building. The initial application to the Planning Board noted more than 36,000 sq. ft. of additional ballroom and meeting space.
This week, Mayor Dan Gelber sounded the alarm about legislative proposals being made “entirely in backroom discussions” that would pre-empt local regulations prohibiting gambling and would allow portability of gaming licenses which would allow Fontainebleau owner Jeffrey Soffer to transfer the license from his Big Easy casino in Hallandale Beach to the Fontainebleau.
Soffer and his sister Jackie split the assets of their real estate empire when Jackie bid to develop the Miami Beach Convention Center Hotel along with developer David Martin. One of the requirements of bidders was that they could not “directly or indirectly, own, operate or manage a gambling establishment in Miami-Dade County.” In January, 2018, Jeffrey Soffer purchased the Mardis Gras casino in Hallandale Beach which is now called The Big Easy. If portability legislation were to be approved, the gaming license could end up with the Fontainebleau.
Gelber raised the issue at the City Commission meeting this week. “It does appear over the last week that the move to force a casino into Dade County and our city has gained quite a bit of steam and support. Now, you haven’t heard about it because it’s been done entirely in back room discussions… or in a mansion or on a yacht or on a private jet,” he said. The Miami Herald this week reported that Soffer pitched the gambling idea to Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls aboard his yacht during a party that included Super Bowl winning quarterback Tom Brady.
Despite the City’s success in the past at batting down gambling initiatives, Gelber said, “This time is different” as the initiative appears to be gaining support to allow the portability of licenses and a pre-emption that would prohibit local governments from preventing it.
The measure, Gelber said, “will inalterably change the course of our community if it were to be successful.”
“It’s not an incredibly novel idea but it’s not one that has had any kind of support before,” he said. “We believe it has the support, potentially, of the governor and of the legislative leadership.” The three most likely locations for gambling if a measure were to pass include the Fontainebleau, the Genting site (former Miami Herald building site) at the entrance to the Venetian Causeway, and the Trump Doral property, Gelber said.
Gelber noted there is no specific legislation yet but he’s sounding the alarm because he believes the sponsors of the initiative are waiting until the last possible moment to bring it forth after it has gained substantial support.
“Casinos essentially suck the marrow out of the community,” he added. “They destroy other businesses. They take money from those that least can afford to lose it, and they spread because every time one shows up more people say, ‘Well why not me?’ And you end up with slot machines in other places, so this is a very frightening moment.”
“As a city we have never wavered from being against casinos coming into Miami Beach, coming into the mouth of the Venetian causeway, coming into downtown Miami,” he said. “It would inalterably change who we are and who the community is and I think it would have a devastating impact on our economy.”
Norman Braman who brought Art Basel to Miami Beach and chaired the Art Fair for nearly twenty years has fought previous efforts to bring gambling here. He told Commissioners, “What most people don’t understand is how this would affect the entire character of our community. I can tell you that years ago, Art Basel informed me that if casino gambling came to the community they would pick up and leave and take the art fair somewhere else. Just yesterday, Bob Goodman, told me that two of his clients that were planning major events in the community also would cancel and not have these events because of casino gambling.” Goodman, President of advertising firm Garber & Goodman and Florida representative for Art Basel Miami Beach, represents clients with large trade and consumer events.
Braman also cited FBI crime statistics for areas surrounding casinos. “This is poison for our community,” he said. “Forgetting about traffic implications and so forth, what casinos bring to a community would just be a killer for us. That’s why we’ve been fighting it for so long.”
Real Estate developer Armando Codina, Executive Chairman of Codina Partners, chaired the “No Casinos” effort in the mid 1980s, which he said “was about bringing a casino to the Fontainebleau.” The owner at the time was “a friend and a partner so it was a very painful fight,” he said. But, had casinos been allowed, “Miami Beach would never be what it is today.”
“Casinos are the most selfish industry on the planet,” Codina said. “You don’t know if it’s 3 o’clock in the morning or 3 o’clock in the afternoon. There are no windows. They want you to spend all of your time and money inside of the casino. Nothing grows in the shadow of a casino” with their subsidized restaurants and entertainment. “Small businesses will suffer in Miami Beach."
“It would change the fabric of this community forever,” he said. “I’m pleased to join forces with the Mayor and Norman Braman to fight this to the bitter end.”
Commissioner Ricky Arriola said, “Gambling does not belong on Miami Beach and we’ll fight tooth and nail to keep it from coming to Miami Beach.” He pointed to the areas surrounding the Seminole and Miccosukee casinos. “They’re worse off because of those casinos. It’s done nothing to develop the greater community… the surrounding area is desolate, crime-infested and no retail can flourish around that and I have yet to see a good argument for why a community… needs any casino,” he said.
While the City’s lobbying team has been working on the issue, Gelber asked Commissioners to approve the hiring of outside counsel that are expert in pre-emption and gaming issues which they did unanimously.
State Representative Michael Grieco, who is also a former Miami Beach City Commissioner, told Commissioners he and Senator Jason Pizzo are keeping an eye on the issue, watching everybody “going into their little secret meetings.” Emphasizing there is no legislation, he said, “They’re just kind of operating in the shadows, so that’s the scary part.”
“We know how much of an issue this is especially for Miami Beach and for the surrounding areas,” Grieco said. “We are paying attention to what’s going on. I will be the tip of the spear when it comes to anything that comes across the House floor on this issue” Noting the City’s lobbyists, he added, “Your elected state legislators also have this on their radar and we are paying attention.”
Codina added, “We have been to this movie on several occasions. We defeated it on the ballot twice” but underscored why “it’s different this time. [U]nder the cover of COVID, while Tallahassee was shut down, they have apparently made a lot of inroads and this has been done in a dark room… It’s really important that we mobilize quickly as soon as the bill comes out.”
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