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I was in Miami the other day visiting our local station there, WLRN, and heard a lot of talk about gambling. A Malaysian company has announced plans to build what it calls the world's largest casino there in Florida. One problem is that Florida has limits on casinos. So the developer and other big names in the gaming industry are pushing lawmakers to ease restrictions and allow so-called destination casinos. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen sent this report.
(SOUNDBITE OF GENTING GROUP PROMOTIONAL VIDEO)
ANNOUNCER: In the center of the city of Miami, along the shores of Biscayne Bay...
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In a promotional video, the Genting Group lays out an impressive vision for a resort that would be the largest ever seen in South Florida.
(SOUNDBITE OF GENTING GROUP PROMOTIONAL VIDEO)
ANNOUNCER: Resorts World Miami will combine iconic architecture, world-class dining and entertainment options...
ALLEN: Genting has already acquired prime Miami real estate and released its proposed design. At its center are six towers with undulating curves that Genting says are inspired by the coral reefs and marine environment of nearby Biscayne Bay. It's a development that would include three hotels, a convention center, more than 50 restaurants and a swimming lagoon as large as 12 Olympic-sized pools.
And that's where the questions begin, with the project's size and its main feature, a casino that would be the largest in the world. Except for those run by Indian tribes and slot machines at racetracks, casino gambling is currently prohibited in Florida.
Resorts World Miami President Christian Goode says rewriting state law to allow for three destination casinos costing at least $2 billion each would give a big boost to the region's struggling economy.
CHRISTIAN GOODE: Our initial estimation is that three destination resorts can create 100,000 jobs. We think that that, you know, given the climate and the unemployment levels that we see here in South Florida, we see nationwide, we think that's a very important point.
ALLEN: That's the lure: jobs and tax revenue. Days after Genting unveiled its plans, lawmakers in Florida's legislature filed a bill that would allow for three casinos to be built in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. The casinos would be taxed at a 10 percent rate, delivering - according to one estimate - as much as $250 million a year to the state.
In Miami, county officials are mostly positive about Genting's mega development. They want assurances that the county gets its share of tax revenue and that jobs to go to area residents. But among others, there's concern about what the development would mean for Miami's economy, particularly for its many hotels and restaurants.
The city manager of Miami Beach, Jorge Gonzalez, told the county commission recently that building 5,000 new hotel rooms adds 1.8 million room nights a year to the area's inventory.
JORGE GONZALEZ: Now, the idea I've been told is that we're not targeting the current visitor. We're going to be bringing new visitors, folks that aren't coming to Miami and South Florida that are big gambling types. Are there really 1.8 million room nights of those types of people in the world?
ALLEN: Since the bill that would allow casinos in South Florida was introduced in Tallahassee, opponents have begun to mobilize. It's a diverse coalition that includes religious conservatives and the Seminole Indians, who operate the Hard Rock Casinos in Florida. It also includes several business groups, such as Florida's Chamber of Commerce. One of the Chamber's leading members, the Walt Disney Company, says it believes gambling is inconsistent with Florida's brand as a family-friendly destination.
The opposition from Disney and the other business groups frustrates State Senator Ellyn Bogdanoff. Bogdanoff, a Republican from Ft. Lauderdale, is sponsoring this bill, she says, because it sets up a state agency that would finally regulate gambling. With Indian casinos, horse and dog tracks and the growth of quasi-legal storefront businesses offering video poker, Florida, she notes, is already the nation's fourth-largest gambling destination.
STATE SENATOR ELLYN BOGDANOFF: This is the opportunity to actually control it and harness it for the first time. We have a proliferation of gaming in this state, and I don't even know that the public understands just how much it's growing. It's growing tremendously, and it's growing in the wrong direction.
ALLEN: Given the strong opposition, the prospects for Florida's move to open the state to casino gambling look uncertain. Genting says it plans to go ahead with its massive Miami resort whether gambling is approved or not. But the mere fact that the state has put casinos on the table has spurred a frenzy of activity. At least two other Las Vegas casinos are actively pursuing opportunities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. And several other counties in Florida are now exploring their own plans for possible casinos. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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