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Tampa waits and watches as Scott hedges on casinos

TAMPA — With Gov. Rick Scott hedging his bets on Friday, Tampa leaders weren't sure what to make of his comments this week that he would consider allowing Las Vegas-style casino resorts in Florida.

"I hadn't heard about this until the radio this morning," said Christine Burdick, president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership. "I haven't thought about it and don't know what it would mean for urban development."

Scott said Thursday he was open to the idea of allowing "destination casinos," in light of the fact that Florida already allows some gambling.

His comments came less than two months after he met with Sheldon Adelson, the owner of the Las Vegas Sands casino empire. Adelson has said he would invest up to $3 billion in a project in Miami.

Against that backdrop, state Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, which oversees gambling, has started work on a bill that would allow four or five casino resorts in Florida and create a gambling commission to regulate them.

The St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau reported Friday that the Senate could hold a hearing next week on a proposal for resort casinos — those with entertainment, retail malls and convention space — in cities that include Miami Beach and Tampa.

Where something like that might fit into Tampa is an open question. Look at an aerial photo of downtown, and it's easy to see sizable areas of undeveloped land immediately north of the St. Pete Times Forum and Interstate 275.

But Burdick said much would depend on "what kind of operation they're thinking of," such as whether it would include a large hotel and entertainment facilities.

The idea intrigues Darren Booth, the development manager of the Heights, a planned 50-acre, mixed-use development that calls for restaurants, offices, condos and entertainment on the eastern bank of the Hillsborough River, just north of I-275.

"To me, it doesn't matter if it's a jazz club or a casino," Booth said.

Another key question is how the Seminole Tribe will react.

On Friday, it wasn't saying.

The tribe has exclusive rights to offer blackjack, baccarat and chemin de fer at five of its seven casinos, including the Seminole Hard Rock Tampa, and for Las Vegas-style slot machines at its casinos outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

If Florida lets competitors operate those games, the tribe can cut off payments to the state — currently $150 million a year.

"If they want to allow in new entities, the Legislature will have to decide if it's a good tradeoff," said Barry Richard, an attorney for the tribe. "Are they going to make enough to make up the assured payments from the tribe?"

Under the gambling deal signed last year, the Seminoles guarantee the state at least $1 billion over five years and up to 10 percent of net revenue on its exclusive games for 15 years after that.

Richard hadn't talked with Seminole officials about Scott's comments on resort casinos. But he said the state would be remiss not to include the Seminoles in the discussion about casino development.

"All the money the Seminole casinos generate stays in Florida," he said. "The Seminoles have become premier hotel and casino operators all over the world."

Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, who is running to regain the office he left in 2003, said he had not heard of Scott's idea before Friday, but it didn't surprise him.

That's because Greco tried to make something similar happen in the mid 1990s. He said he negotiated with the Seminole Tribe to move its gambling operations to a city-owned piece of property behind Tampa's Union Station train depot.

Having the casino behind Union Station would have spurred the redevelopment of Channelside and linked Ybor City to downtown, Greco said. Federal officials were open to the idea, but he said the deal died for lack of state support.

Now that spot has been redeveloped, but Greco said another spot, the location of the ConAgra flour mill, is a possibility.

Greco also served as a consultant with a Virginia company that is looking at the development potential of the Florida State Fairgrounds off Interstate 4. On Friday, he said that site could be a possibility for a casino but probably isn't the best choice.

Tampa might not get as much spinoff development if a second casino were built so close to the Seminole Hard Rock Tampa, Greco said.

Most important, Greco said, is strict control of what is allowed.

"I don't want to see gambling all over the place," he said. "I don't want to live in an atmosphere of walking into a 7-Eleven and seeing a slot machine."

Another candidate for mayor said state officials need to listen to tourism companies that depend on Florida's family-friendly image.

"Whatever you could get from five casinos would be a pimple on the backside of an elephant in comparison of the investment that other people have made in tourism," former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik said. "We really need to ask those folks how this affects the brand."

At his first news conference as governor Friday, Scott downplayed the issue. Pressed by reporters, he did not rule out the idea of Vegas-style destination casinos coming to Florida, nor did he embrace it.

"I have not taken any position," he said. "I've always said, right now I do not want our budget to be tied to gaming. We already have gaming in the state. I'm fine with what they're doing. I've not taken any position or made any changes."

Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau contributed to this report.

Tampa waits and watches as Scott hedges on casinos 01/07/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 8, 2011 12:02am]
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