Gambling expansion could affect Florida's family-friendly pitch, report cautions

Published July 3, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — If Florida decides to expand casino gambling, the move could harm the state and Orlando's tourist brand, says a new gaming report commissioned by the Florida Legislature.

The report, released late Monday, comes at a time when lawmakers plan to review and rewrite the state's gambling laws, and decide whether gambling should be expanded statewide.

"The brand equity of Orlando has benefits for the entire state" and "expanded gambling may fundamentally change the state of Florida as a place to live and visit," writes Spectrum Gaming Group, a New Jersey-based gambling consulting firm. "Rather than benefiting the state, expanded gambling (especially casinos) could make Florida a less-attractive tourist destination."

Those observations may come as a surprise to many, who expected that Spectrum would produce a report that advocates for expanded gambling since it does the bulk of its business on behalf of that industry.

But the head of the Senate Gaming Committee emphasized that the report's goal is to provide lawmakers with a map of the terrain.

"The report does not, and will not, make policy recommendations," said Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples. He said it will be the responsibility of the committee "to review gambling statutes, to address the ambiguities, inconsistencies and exceptions in current law, and to craft an action plan."

Crafting a state gambling plan has been an elusive goal for decades. As the state's parimutuel industry has rapidly declined in popularity, the industry has pushed to offset its losses by installing card rooms and slot machines — a situation that the report notes has helped prop up and subsidize the declining greyhound, jai alai and thoroughbred racing industries.

Legislators paid Spectrum $388,000 to assess Florida's gambling market, and this is the first of a two-part report. The second report, on the economic impact of gaming on communities, is due in October.

Lawmakers plan a series of meetings to discuss the issue around the state, starting in the fall, Richter said.

Among the report's other findings:

• Reported revenues at Florida's horse and dog tracks are wildly understated because Florida's Division of Parimutuel Wagering "does not collect data on out-of-state-generated handle, which is the single largest component of handle."

• Florida's largest greyhound tracks are ready to give up their dog racing. With losses of $35 million from greyhound racing in the past year, only three tracks made a profit, and that was because of revenues from card rooms.

• Gambling expansion is headed to the Panhandle. The Poarch Band of Creek Indians, based in Atmore, Ala., has land in Escambia County and operates the Gretna racetrack, which is operating controversial flag drop races. The tribe has options to own, or agreements to control, 10 parimutuel permits along the Interstate 10 corridor between Pensacola and Jacksonville.