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Miami debate tests arguments on both sides of gambling issue

The head of the casino gambling initiative, the most expensive political campaign in Florida history, said Tuesday that he hates Atlantic City, and he criticized the backer of a Miami Beach casino.

But Pat Roberts, executive director of the group behind Proposition 8, said the prospects for economic growth from casinos transcend criticism of the special interests backing the proposed constitutional amendment.

Roberts foresees an economic watershed if the state's voters legalize casinos: 67,000 new jobs, 1.5-million new tourists and $400-million in taxes.

Miami Beach Mayor Seymour Gelber, who faced Roberts in a debate before the tourist-sensitive Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, disputed Roberts' rosy economic forecast. He derided casino proponents as a band of greedy buccaneers.

"Is the tooth fairy around?" Gelber said. "If you want to believe in the tooth fairy, good luck!"

Gelber contends casino interests won't be satisfied with the 47 gambling houses and riverboats authorized in the proposed constitutional amendment being considered by voters Nov. 8.

Florida's existing parimutuel businesses _ 30 horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons _ would be allowed to build casinos rivaling the biggest in Las Vegas.

"It's just the beginning," Gelber contended. "They'll come back for more and more and more."

Gelber charged that one provision of the ballot initiative was written specifically for the benefit of Miami Beach developer Thomas Kramer.

"He's a lousy human being. I don't like him either," Roberts said of Kramer. "He's insane."

But Roberts said Kramer has found "the best partner in the world" in Mirage Resorts chairman Steve Winn.

Underscoring the potential role of major gaming corporations in Florida, Promus Cos., the parents of Harrah's, announced partnerships Tuesday with Miami's Flagler Greyhound Track, the Seminole County jai alai owner and the Bonita Springs dog track to develop and manage their casinos if the measure passes.

The Miccosukee Indians, meanwhile, protested that television commercials by pro-casino forces are insulting to Indians and falsely claim Indian gaming is unregulated.

Roberts, the son of a Baptist deacon, said he has no interest in building another Atlantic City, saying, "Atlantic City is ugly." But he believes spreading casinos statewide will produce world-class hotels and a controlled gambling environment.

"Towns will never get run over. You'll never have a Las Vegas strip," he said.

Gelber has his doubts. He fears Florida would have more square footage in casinos than all of Nevada.

"This is not a little, small incursion. This is an invasion," he said.

The mayor's biggest fear is for the future of communities with casinos.

"They haven't the slightest idea of what this means to a community in terms of people who live there," he said.

Gelber dismissed Las Vegas as "a mindless community. All they can see is those slot machines."