John Sowinski, president of No Casinos, is paid to fight the expansion of gaming in Florida, and he is doing a good job. Organizations like Disney Corp. are probably big contributors, and that is also OK, because Disney sees casino gaming and family entertainment as incompatible.
But there are places where the two forms of entertainment work well together. Just look at Genting's Resort World Singapore, where one of the World's most successful casinos shares the same entertainment zone with a Universal Studio Theme Park, plus a water park, an aquarium and many other resort attractions and accommodations.
And truth be told, Orlando, home to the most family friendly attractions in the World, is only an hour’s drive from the Seminole Hard Rock Casino, just down Interstate 4 in Tampa.
I can understand Disney and the other resort operators in and around Orlando not wanting a Sheldon Adelson type Venetian Resort in the state because Sheldon's Las Vegas Sands Corp. has built the World’s best convention resorts, and the Orlando resort operators see this as real competition for high-rate, mid-week hotel demand.
Florida contracted with the Spectrum Gaming Group in 2013 to provide an overview of the Florida gaming landscape, but not to make recommendations on gaming's expansion. (A copy of the study is available by clicking here.)
In any upcoming casino referendum, Florida must be very careful to listen to all interested parties, not just the Disney Corp. and Orlando resorts and attractions. The fact is, there may be many other resort areas in the state that could use some of the many gaming options available to improve visitor demand for their resorts.
Over the last 40 years, I have assisted many U.S. states and legislatures, as they debated the pros and cons of casino gaming. And I helped many determine if riverboats, slots at pari-mutuels, resort casinos or just slot parlors, would most help their targeted communities -- while also limiting any negative consequences. These States included New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Mississippi, Connecticut, West Virginia, Massachusetts, Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri, Indiana, Hawaii and even Florida, where I was often quoted in the 1978 casino referendum effort.
Even though I supported the effort, I was truthful in indicating that the Florida experience would be very different than that of Atlantic City, where I was EVP of the first legal U.S. casino outside Nevada, the Resorts International Casino Hotel. Most of our customers came from Philadelphia, New York City, and other cities within a three-hour drive, including Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
But in South Florida, the area of the state most wanting destination casinos, I pointed out the most likely customer base would likely be the millions of South Florida residents, existing winter residents, and resort hotel vacationers. I was quick to point out that resort hotel demand would receive a big boost in those communities allowed to have casino gaming. The head of Florida's 1978 referendum campaign, the same individual we used to head up our successful 1976 New Jersey campaign, publicly placed the defeat of the referendum on my quoted comments.
Florida's 1978 referendum (losing 70 percent to 30 percent), followed New Jersey's failed effort in 1974 (60 percent to 40 percent) -- both allowing any county to have their own casinos, subject to a County-specific followup vote. This allowed NIMBY proponents like Florida's No Casinos to scare most voters with pronouncements that crime, prostitution, traffic congestion, declining real estate values, suicides and bankruptcies would all skyrocket if mobsters were allowed to invade their town with casino gaming.
Naturally, the negative gaming perceptions doomed most other casino efforts to failure, like the 1978 Florida vote. My due diligence on the issues since produced some interesting facts:
Violence: Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and even Orlando, have higher violence and property crime rates than Las Vegas or Atlantic City.
The FBI crime rates show something different because they compare all crimes to just the permanent population and totally ignore the 30 to 40 million visitors to Orlando, Las Vegas or Atlantic City.
My more detailed study of Atlantic City determined that total crimes actually tripled: mostly stolen cars, chips and coin; prostitution; drunken driving; robbery and other nonviolent crimes. But when considering the average number of persons at risk of being a victim, including the 40,000 residents, the 50,000 nonresident employees, commuting to Atlantic City five or more days a week and the 100,000 average daily visitors, the data translated into all persons in Atlantic City being 60 percent to 70 percent less likely of being involved in a crime, than "BC" -- before casinos.
Prostitution: I was on a panel discussion with the New Jersey attorney general during a referendum debate and indicated that we probably couldn't eradicate the World's oldest profession, but that our security problem would be much less severe than major city hotels, entertaining commercial and convention business.
In our primary metropolitan markets, of New York City, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Baltimore, hotel rooms are typically occupied midweek by a single individual (usually male; maybe averaging 1.1 or 1.2 guests per occupied room). Unlike vacation or casino resorts where each room usually has 1.9 or more guests per room. At a casino resort, occupancy is normally a couple -- a fact that substantially reduces a prostitute's opportunities.
Mob involvement in casino ownership or operations: Under Gov. Brendan Byrne, with his background as a prosecutor, New Jersey told the mob to stay away, and it did. The state also passed a bill so tough that many casino executives were denied licenses just because they had questionable friends or business associates.
In the mid-1980s some states took a chance, and at the start of the 1990s many more prevailed, with five states approving cruising riverboats and Mississippi allowing casinos on dockside barges.
Since the early 1990s tribal Indian casinos, slots at pari-mutuels, internet cafes, online gaming, fantasy sports, e-sports and sports betting joined resort casinos -- and are increasingly on the table for discussion.
And the most effective way to stop the billions now being bet illegally and untaxed, on foreign websites, is probably to legalize these activities. So now Florida can look to 48 U.S. states that have some form of legal gaming, and outside firms, like Spectrum, that can study the likely impacts of almost any style of casino gaming.
Plus, the gaming industry also has a wonderful national association, the AGA (American Gaming Association), that I helped found in 1995. The AGA has incredible information on all gaming questions from all gaming states. So, now Florida can draw from the experiences of all that, plus its own substantial experience, including pari-mutuel betting (primarily on TV feeds from Thoroughbred and harness tracks). The Sport of Kings (horse racing) is still an important industry for Florida tourism, just as the tribal casinos in the State.
A story in Wednesday's WJHG.com, "State gambling laws go before Florida's Supreme Court," deals with a possible future referendum being heard by the Florida Supreme Court -- a statewide referendum that would determine if the Legislature or voter referendum would determine any casino gaming issues in the future.
But far more important for Florida is to quickly address the unfinished compact negotiations, with the Seminole Tribe, that are currently before the federal courts. This is where a negative decision could cost Florida billions in future state revenue, and put thousands of Seminole workers on the unemployment line. And it will kill $1 billion in new resort hotel construction, including a substantial hotel addition, at the Tampa Hard Rock.
To be fair to those communities that might want slots at their race tracks or frontons, destination resorts like those proposed by Sheldon Adelson and Genting; casino gaming at large existing resorts, like the Fountainbleau or Diplomat or slot machines at famous golf resorts, like Doral, PGA National or the World Golf Village -- it might be preferable to appoint a state gaming commission and allow the Legislature and the governor to decide when some form of gaming expansion is needed to continue Florida's dominance as America's favorite vacation destination.
If the upcoming referendum determines that Florida voters be given the choice of determining the fate of any gaming expansion, failures of several Florida gaming referenda, between 1978 and 2004, is the more likely outcome. That's what No Casinos wants.
But if the voters determine that they will be the deciding factor in future gaming, then the statewide referendum vote should only be taken after including specific language in the referendum question. And that language should specifically list communities or counties that have previously voted in favor of the form of gaming being proposed.
Then, like the successful 2004 referendum, statewide voters only approved slots and poker at pari-mutuels in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. But the local vote followed, not preceded, the state referendum, and Miami-Dade defeated the issue until a subsequent vote two years later. That procedural change would give voters, who don't want gaming in their communities, an opportunity to vote in favor of the new taxes, jobs, construction and state tourism that gaming will bring, while knowing it will not negatively impact their own community or county lifestyle.
First and foremost is for Florida to address the Seminole Compact and come to terms that benefit the state, permitting the Tribe to add craps and roulette.
It's important to remember that adults are by far the largest percentage of state tourists and visit year round, unlike families whose schedules are restricted by their children's school times.
The state needs to look beyond Disney and Orlando area resorts that desire to monopolize the Florida convention/trade show market. No Casinos' paid campaign should not be a reason to deny possible gaming additions that would substantially increase Florida's impressive visitor totals, a fact easily demonstrated by looking at Las Vegas, Atlantic City (before 2007), Singapore and Macao.
Florida native Steve Norton was chairman of Argosy Gaming and helped to expand gaming in mid-America. Today he is a consultant to many gaming companies.