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Legislator tours Singapore casino, readies push to bring one to Florida

TALLAHASSEE — State Sen. Rene Garcia spent his summer vacation doing research — at one of the World's largest gambling resorts in Singapore.

"I loved it,'' said Garcia, a Hialeah Republican and a likely "yes" vote for legislation to bring Las Vegas-style casinos to South Florida. He spent one week and more than $6,100 of his own money to make the lengthy trip to Asia in August to experience Genting's flagship casino.

Garcia produced receipts that show he was charged $4,398 in airfare and $1,765 for his hotel at Genting's Resorts World at Sentosa, where he stayed Aug. 6-11.

Garcia was one of several business and community leaders invited to visit the company's sprawling theme park and casino resort in the heart of Singapore. Legislators are prohibited by state ethics laws from accepting gifts and trips, civic leaders are not.

Genting said they have given complimentary trips to civic leaders in Miami-Dade, including Jack Lowell, chairman of the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade's economic development arm, and Bernie Navarro, president of the Latin Builders Association.

"These visits are an opportunity to experience first-hand the quality of Genting's properties, as well as the significant economic impacts that Destination Resorts can bring to Florida,'' said Jessica Hoppe, general counsel for Resorts World.

The company is one of a handful of major casino operators who are hoping to persuade the Florida Legislature next year to change state law and allow for Las Vegas-style casinos tucked inside sprawling tourist resorts that include retail, convention and entertainment facilities.

In the last six months, Genting has assembled nearly 30 acres of property in downtown Miami and announced plans for a $3 billion development called Resorts World Miami. Other casino companies are exploring sites in Miami as well.

But their first hurdle is to persuade the Legislature to change state law. Garcia, whose district includes Hialeah Racetrack, said he believes that bringing Las Vegas-style casinos to South Florida will not hurt existing pari-mutuel operators.

"There's enough room for all of them to co-exist,'' said Garcia, a vice president for community relations for Dade Medical College. "It's not the same kind of clientele we're used to at Hialeah."

He said he was struck by the inconspicuous presence of the casinos at the Genting resort. "I didn't understand the concept before I went,'' he said. "You could spend three or four days looking for the casino. It's just one small part of it."

Several other casino companies have also invited legislators to tour their facilities in anticipation of the gambling debate.

The Las Vegas Sands, Wynn Resorts, Caesars Palace, MGM and Treasure Island are among the companies that have invited lawmakers to see their facilities in Las Vegas or in other states.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos hosted a Republican Party fundraiser in Las Vegas in August.

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican and sponsor of the Senate's casino bill, said she held 10 back-to-back meetings in Las Vegas over the summer with gambling company officials and state regulators.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, the sponsor of the House's casinos bill, also met with major industry heads in a whirlwind two-day trip.

Meanwhile, Genting is trying to persuade legislators that if they win one of the casino bids to allow them to open a temporary casino as early as next fall in downtown Miami. The company is calling it Phase I of their resort plan, that would follow with four hotels, retail and restaurant space in three to five years.

But Bogdanoff is not a fan of the idea. "It's circumventing the whole intent of the bill,'' she said Thursday. "I'm not interested in drafting a bill that favors one particular vendor."

Fresen said he would support the idea as long as the winning bidder agreed to complete the larger resort on schedule and replace the $250 million in expected lost state revenue, as a result of violating the gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe.

Bogdanoff and Fresen said they expect to release a draft of their proposed legislation next week.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

Legislator tours Singapore casino, readies push to bring one to Florida 09/22/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 22, 2011 7:27pm]
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