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Casino amendment is one man's jackpot

Published Oct. 8, 2005

It was late March, and the campaign to bring casinos to Florida was about two months old. The petition drive to get enough signatures for the ballot was more than halfway there, and $1-million already had been raised. Yet its leader, Pat Roberts, was worried.

It seems the Bad Boy of the Beach here, Thomas Kramer, a wildly rich, 37-year-old German developer known for his flamboyance and arrogance, was making noises about starting his own casino campaign that would compete with Roberts'.

Roberts called a meeting.

What emerged from two days of negotiations was a brand-new version of the Proposition for Limited Casinos: this one with a special provision that would authorize in the state Constitution that one of the 47 proposed casinos be built in the South Pointe Redevelopment Area of Miami Beach.

Kramer just happens to be the biggest investor and largest landowner of undeveloped property in South Pointe.

Suddenly all talk of a Kramer campaign was over. The two men had joined forces and in the months that followed, Kramer, known for his seemingly bottomless wallet, became the largest single contributor to the Proposition for Limited Casinos.

As of the Oct. 21 campaign finance report, he had given $1.4-million.

To change the amendment as he did, Roberts had to start over with his campaign. All of the signatures had to be thrown out and new ones had to be gathered. Roberts says now it was worth it.

Besides the South Pointe addition, there were other changes made to the original version of the amendment: Two more casinos were added, plus five riverboats. That brought the total to 47, including the state's 30 parimutuel sites.

Perhaps more than any other, though, it is the Kramer deal that infuriates some people. The state attorney general's office said a provision specifically naming an area to benefit from a change in the Constitution probably is unprecedented. But more than that, many residents here find it appalling that one man _ especially one who has made a bad name for himself through fistfights in clubs, brushes with police and outrageous statements about immigrant groups _ should be all but guaranteed a casino in the state Constitution.

"It is unbelievable that this thing might get passed and this one guy will be enriched," said Craig Robbins, president of Dacra Development Corp., which has been involved in renovation and redevelopment in the area.

"An image problem'

Kramer rarely, if ever, grants interviews anymore. He now is being represented by Rubin Barney & Birger public relations firm, which fields all questions about his business and personal life. Bruce Rubin, a partner in the firm, says his client doesn't give interviews because "Thomas feels uncomfortable with the media."

He says Kramer has been picked on unnecessarily, mostly by people who are envious of his enormous wealth. He says criticism is also fueled by the fact Kramer is not an American. But Rubin also acknowledges that his client has "had an image problem," and interviews just seem to make that worse. Take, for example, the interview he gave last year to the German magazine Stern:

In it Kramer was quoted as saying New York City made a mistake by not lowering its immigration quotas. "The quality of the immigrants went from intelligent, financially powerful people down to Puerto Ricans, and New York became hostage to its own liberal system," he said. The interview was translated and reprinted in the Miami Daily Business Review.

Kramer also was quoted as saying he expected Miami's huge Cuban population to return to Cuba once it becomes free. "That means," he said, "Miami is the only big city in America that has the prospect to, perfectly effortlessly, get rid of its slums."

Matthew Gorson, a lawyer representing Kramer, told the business newspaper that his client had been misquoted and misinterpreted. He further explained that what Kramer had really meant was that big cities didn't have the infrastructure or finances to handle influxes of immigrants.

Nevertheless, Kramer is out of the country these days and not expected back before the election. South Florida is considered key in the pro-casino campaign. No one wants a scandal this late in the game. Rubin says Kramer is simply on a family vacation. Roberts, however, hints at damage control.

"I never asked Thomas not to stay in the country," Roberts said last week, but then added, "What can I say? I'm glad he's not making the paper all the time."

All does not seem rosy between the two men who early in the campaign had forged such an important alliance. Roberts admitted he found Kramer and the negative publicity that swirls about him a liability to the campaign. "A minor one, not a major one," he said.

Yet, last Tuesday, during a debate on casinos with Miami Beach Mayor Seymour Gelber, Roberts blurted out he thought Kramer was a "lousy human being." He since has backtracked and said he was speaking in the heat of the moment.

Visions tend to change

Thomas Kramer, tall, blond and handsome, was born into privilege and has been living the high life ever since. When he arrived in Miami Beach in 1991, he already was well known in the European tabloids as an outrageous playboy and a charmer dripping in money.

The story goes he made his first stock trade at age 14 from a pay phone at the exclusive boarding school he was attending. He supposedly made his first million at age 17. In 1989 he met wealthy Catherine Burda and married her later that year, much to the anger of her father. The resulting feud between the two businessmen was more fodder for the tabloids.

Before he came to Florida, his first real estate venture ended in disaster when he attempted to gather investors to buy land in what was then East Germany, before unification was complete. The riskiness and negative press spooked investors and ultimately he filed for bankruptcy in Germany, leaving behind about $1.1-million in debts. He left Germany but has said he has repaid those debts.

Kramer likes to call himself a self-made man. His money, he says, comes solely from currency trading and what has seemed a charmed sense of timing. He bet right that the stock market would crash in 1987 and pocketed $30-million, German press reports say.

Many people, especially his enemies, have tried for years to show his money comes from something other than shrewd trading, but no one has been able to prove it.

Swiss banker and friend Ernst Rohrer has been quoted as saying "Thomas is not your average European. He is not your average anything. This is a message that must get out."

When Kramer showed up in Florida, it seemed his timing was on schedule again.

"In an instant he said, "This is unbelievable. This is one of the prime pieces of real estate in the Western Hemisphere,' " Rubin said of his client's first glimpse of south Miami Beach.

So he started buying. Within a week he had bought 13 acres of blighted property, formerly the site of crack dealers and shoot-outs, for $13-million. Cash.

And he just kept on buying. Always in cash. Today he owns about 45 acres of prime property in the South Pointe neighborhood, just south of the Art Deco area made famous by the television show Miami Vice. Slowly the nightclubs and fancy boutiques have begun creeping south. The total amount of his investment is now around $100-million, said Heinrich Hanau, the chief of staff at Kramer's Portofino Group development company.

Amid the plans for condo towers and retail complexes is one for a 12-acre tract of land at the tip of the beach. That's where he wants to put his casino and five-star hotel. He joined forces with Steve Wynn, the infamous Las Vegas hotelier who owns the Mirage and Treasure Island hotels and casinos. Together, they have concocted a Mediterranean vision for a $600-million hotel and casino. Wynn, too, has contributed heavily to Florida's casino campaign, pumping in $1.2-million.

But then, Kramer has had a lot of visions in his short time in Miami Beach. They tend to change often, infuriating the neighbors who are challenging him at every turn. Instead of the promised neighborhood of low-rise, elegant buildings that borrow heavily from the style of Italian villas in Portofino, Kramer has recently announced plans for a series of high-rises.

He also invited a good bit of criticism for buying and then tearing down the $3.75-million historic mansion belonging to Look magazine heiress Jan Cowles. He said he was going to build a new home there, then changed his mind. The vacant lot is still for sale.

"He would not win a popularity contest in this town," says Mayor Gelber.

Rubin defends his client, saying that he has had to change some of his plans for practical reasons. He calls Kramer more of an idea man, not one caught up in details. "His idea is the very best until someone gives him a better one," Rubin said.

Added to his scuffles with his neighbors are his brushes with police:

In December of 1992, a model named Shelly Hall called police, complaining that Kramer had grabbed her breasts and only laughed when she protested. She later declined to pursue the case, police said. This all happened at his highly controversial, and short-lived, nightclub called Hell.

He also took some heat for allegations that he instructed his doorman not to allow gays into the club. He denies that. Hell closed a year after it opened. Kramer now says club ownership was not for him.

In January of this year, police were called to Les Bains nightclub to break up a fight between Kramer and a man who alleged Kramer made anti-Semitic comments toward him and his wife. Kramer told police the other man started it. No charges were filed.

In June, police were called to another nightclub where a witness told them Kramer had flung a glass of wine in a panhandler's face. Mark Dow, a Miami free-lance writer who was sitting nearby, said last week Kramer was very aggressive toward the panhandler. "It was infuriating," Dow said. Again, no charges were filed.

Sixteen days later, Kramer was stopped for driving while intoxicated. That charge was later reduced to a minor traffic charge.

Rubin insists these are simply isolated incidents and misunderstandings.

George Lowander, an early pioneer in the neighborhood's redevelopment, is not as vehement in his criticism as some. Lowander remembers what it was like a decade ago when he had to dodge bullets from the shoot-outs in his buildings. He praises Kramer for his enormous investment in the area, which has caused property values to skyrocket.

As far as his personality, Lowander finds him charming: "He's young, he's rich, what's not to like? Every time I've spent personal time with him, I can't figure out whether he's 38-years-old or 18-years-old. . . . The words "loose cannon' are really applicable here."

But Robbins, another South Pointe developer, is less charitable. "I don't think Thomas Kramer has any credibility left in this community," he says. "Any negative criticism that Thomas Kramer has generated he has brought on himself."

Back on the campaign trail, pro-casino forces get ticked off by the notion that Kramer is an issue with voters. They say he's just a landlord. "He is a controversial figure," says Alan Feldman, a spokesman for Steve Wynn. "There are a lot of controversial figures in the world and that doesn't prevent them from being good businessmen."

Roberts says just because Kramer is the largest landowner in South Pointe, and just because South Pointe is authorized a casino in the amendment, it does not mean he will automatically get the casino license for the area. Licenses would be granted by some sort of gaming commission to be established by the Legislature.

But when pressed, Roberts admitted "it will be hard for anyone to compete."

That's the part that really gets to Ilona Wiss, a real estate agent and neighborhood activist in South Pointe. It's not that she's so anti-casino. She's just furious that a political deal might mean a casino in her neighborhood whether residents want it or not.

"The whole state gets to decide the fate of our neighborhood," she says. "How would you like it if the entire state got to decide what is next door to you?"