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A HARD SELL FOR FLORIDA CASINOS

A determined developer promises 100,000 new jobs, but some aren't buying in.

It is a lazy, rainy day in Tallahassee and Colin Au, the president of Genting Americas, has arrived in town on a mission - to meet with every one of the state's 160 legislators to explain why Miami needs a "destination resort" with one of the world's biggest casinos.

As the top U.S. executive for one of the globe's largest casino developers, Au is prepared to lobby "24/7 for 100 days,'' he said - or as long as it takes for a legislative vote on a bill to bring resort casinos to Miami-Dade and Broward. "I'm stationed here,'' he said Tuesday, in between meetings.

A bill is expected to be filed today by Miami Rep. Erik Fresen and Fort Lauderdale Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff. It asks legislators to do what lawmakers have rejected for decades: bring three Las Vegas-style casinos to Florida.

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The proposal appeals heavily to the jobs-first strategy of Gov. Rick Scott and legislators, but skepticism is widespread. Doubters question what impact more gambling, more tourism and more congestion will have on families, communities and the state.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Times/Herald last week, Au responded to concerns, pointedly countered rumors that his company is anti-Semitic and associated with the Chinese mafia, and offered a window into the company's legislative strategy.

"My message is very simple,'' Au said. Florida faces "huge unemployment, budget deficits and gaming is already here." Florida's choice, he said, is to decide whether it wants to keep gaming the way it is "or transform it."

He spelled out the preliminary results of an economic impact study, in which Genting consultants project annual casino tax revenue of $400 million to $600 million and the creation of 100,000 permanent jobs.

Au, 62, is one of the new breed of casino developers who, along with Sheldon Adelson of the Las Vegas Sands and Steven Wynn of Wynn Resorts, have transformed the traditional Las Vegas-style casino into multipurpose entertainment venues, geared toward high-end clients, conventions, business, and families. The strategy has earned them billions and now each eyes Miami as a next gambling frontier.

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A native of Malaysia, educated at Harvard Business School and the University of Birmingham in England, Au speaks with the argot of a Brit and the accent of an Asian. He compared Florida to Singapore, a city-state historically opposed to casinos until the powerful former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, determined in 2005 that the right "moment" had come to permit so-called integrated resorts to stimulate the economy.

"The key thing for Florida is to decide what I call the 'Lee Kuan Yew moment,''' Au said. "It is transforming. We are not talking about hiring 500 jobs or 1,000 jobs. We are talking 100,000 jobs."

To up the ante, Genting Group purchased the Miami Herald property last spring from the McClatchy Co., the newspaper's parent owner, paying $236 million in cash for the bayfront building and allowing the paper to remain rent-free at the site for two years. Genting has since gobbled up adjacent property, met with downtown traffic engineers and started assuring local retailers and hotel owners that it wants to work beside them, not in competition, Au said.

State Rep. Steve Precourt, a Republican from theme-park rich Orlando, has heard Genting's pitch and doesn't buy it.

"Look at the new gambling efforts around the country -from Atlantic City to Biloxi - and any of those new entrants have horribly cannibalized the local economy,'' said Precourt, chairman of the House Finance and Tax Committee.

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He predicts that resort casinos "will put a whole bunch of hotel and restaurants out of business, and it won't be limited to the local economy.'' He said the attempts to lure convention business to the megaresorts will sap Orlando's "bread-and-butter convention business" and then "take huge profits out of the community."

Precourt is not a lone dissenting voice. House Speaker Dean Cannon, also from the Orlando area, said he's skeptical of the claims of the casino industry. He and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, with its new chairman from Disney, have lined up against the casino legislation.

Au acknowledged that of all the obstacles ahead of him, persuading Florida's historically antigambling Legislature to take a chance on casino resorts is the most challenging. So Au comes to every meeting with charts, graphs and numbers.

First, he talks about revenue and jobs. Genting believes Florida can create a $4 billion to $6 billion resort casino market by appealing to international tourists and high rollers from other states. Casinos would pay a 10 percent tax rate - higher than the 6.75 percent paid in Las Vegas but lower than the current 35 percent paid by Florida's slot racinos (combined racetracks and casinos), he said. Then, Miami would lure high-stakes gamblers from the East Coast and Texas, and away from Las Vegas (estimated revenue: $1 billion to $2 billion a year). Another $1 billion to $2 billion would come from Asian tourists and the rest from Latin America.

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The plan is to capture one-third of the estimated 13 million East Coast tourists who visit Las Vegas and 80 percent to 90 percent of the Hispanic market on the East Coast, Au said.

"We are not after the little old lady in Hialeah with $25,'' he said. "We are after New Yorkers with thousands."

Au calls it the "export model" and said it's based on the company's experience in Singapore, where the destination resort market has grown 41 percent in two years, gaming tax revenue is $6 billion, and most gamblers are tourists. There, residents are discouraged from gambling with a government-imposed $100 casino entrance fee levied every 24 hours.

If Miami can't get nonstop flights from Asia to Miami, Genting is "prepared to bankroll and subsidize some of the flights," he said. "We will tell China Eastern, or Air China, that we will guarantee 50 percent of the seats," he said.

The ultimate calculation for policymakers and the industry, Au said, is this: "At the end of the day we are a sin industry, and the most important thing is to make the economic development benefits far outweigh anything else."

And if the Legislature doesn't agree?

"Don't feel sorry for us,'' Au said. "We are actually sitting on cash earning at a quarter of a percent. We think this (Miami) land is going to appreciate. So if they take three years to do it, so be it."

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

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By the numbers

$600M top annual tax revenue for the state from resort casinos, according to projections by casino operator Genting Americas

100,000 permanent jobs created by resort casinos

$4B to $6B size of market for resort casinos in the state

It is a lazy, rainy day in Tallahassee and Colin Au, the president of Genting Americas, has arrived in town on a mission - to meet with every one of the state's 160 legislators to explain why Miami needs a "destination resort" with one of the world's biggest casinos.

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