River of Cash
Despite a dizzying sequence of balancing acts, minor and major debacles, and one near-disaster, the grand opening of the Miccosukee Resort and Convention Center ended quietly for tribal chairman Billy Cypress. Just past midnight on June 15 the 48-year-old was sitting comfortably in a cozy lounge chair on the carpeted second floor of his tribe's new 300-room hotel. He quaffed a Bass Ale and chatted with three women who were seated around a small table. A group of Miccosukee men in traditional, brightly colored vests stood nearby puffing on cigars. When New Times asked for Cypress's thoughts on the inauguration of the $50 million addition to the tribe's gaming center, Cypress looked at his watch. "Well, we should all be in bed by now," he said, his eyes bloodshot. "Thank you for coming."
The Monday-evening event demonstrated the Miccosukees' seriousness about attracting massive amounts of traffic, people, and money to their spread on the River of Grass. Who could deny them the right to develop a tourist destination, as non-natives have done on vast expanses of swampland to the east?
Three impressive traffic jams -- one sprawling north, one south, and one east -- at Krome Avenue and the Tamiami Trail set the tone for the night. At 5:00, the designated ribbon-cutting hour, astounding numbers of cars and trucks stood motionless. The party producers hired by the tribe, North Miami Beach's Logistics Management Group, had assembled an attractive, if odd, program that included Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Hootie and the Blowfish, Rick Springfield, clowns on bicycles, and more scantily clad showgirls than you could shake a rainstick at. Free liquor and appetizers offered an additional draw, along with video poker, Lightning Lotto, and, of course, bingo.
Traffic notwithstanding, a multicultural crowd was gathering for the opening of a nine-story hotel, a 46,000 square-foot convention center, and a new casino. Guests included African Americans, Latins, Anglos, and other post-Columbian immigrants as well as Miccosukees and members of about 25 other Native American groups. They were the first of an estimated 10,000 people who checked out the new Miccosukee facility. Above the podium a brass band played on a second-floor patio as the mob waited for Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, who was stuck in traffic. Miami Commissioner Joe Sanchez offered his thoughts on the casino: "It's human nature to look out for yourself and that's what they're trying to do out here." Next, chairman Cypress announced the venture would be "like a landmark."
Penelas finally arrived an hour late thanks to his sergeant at arms, who parted the automotive seas with honks and blue police flashers. "It is indeed a pleasure for me to recognize the contribution that the Miccosukee tribe has made to the cultural diversity and richness of Miami-Dade County," the mayor yelled into the microphone. "We all know the significant contribution that the travel and tourism industry means to our economy."
A moment later an employee leaned from a balcony, grabbed the colossal red ribbon that stretched diagonally across the east face of the hotel-casino complex, and snipped it. People cheered and the ceremonial slicer stowed the cloth on the veranda.
All was well for a while, as the complimentary food and liquor flowed without a hitch. But then evil began conquering good in the grandstands, where one of our nation's unique forms of cultural diversity was on display. The arrogant, boisterous Al Snow had pinned the taciturn, introverted Kane to the mat. The referee was about to say "three" when Kane, with coordinated leg and hip thrusts, flung away his foe. Leon Billie, a fourteen-year-old Miccosukee, turned away from the battle just long enough to tell why he was happy about the tribe's new tourist playground: It had delivered the World Wrestling Federation.
Nearby Kenny Cypress, the chairman's 29-year-old son, also averted disaster by subduing a six-foot alligator in a circus ring. His only complaint was that the show's managers bumped his act up to 7:00 from 7:30. The move gave the Incredible Dmitri additional time to prepare his balancing shtick. (Dmitri stands atop a stack of eleven chairs. The bottom one is supported by four bottles.) Afterward the professional gator grappler said the resort inauguration had one meaning for him: "A bigger paycheck."
The expanded casino fed not only the Miccosukees' pecuniary dreams, but those of the thousands of guests who trekked to this libertine corner of the Everglades. Inside the hotel the air of the new first-floor gaming area was filled with a demonic xylophone symphony of several hundred video poker and lotto machines. Wistful citizens pumped their hard-earned cash into their favorite electronic slots, like Touch of Gold and Shockwave.
Above them in the second-floor ballroom, a Miccosukee fashion show featured tribe members of all ages modeling brightly hued handmade jackets that would give the best Guatemalan seamstresses a run for their money. In the hallway a young busker juggled five balls. Just a few steps away Elvis was singing "I'm All Shook Up" in front of the Majic (WMJX-FM 102.7) booth. What in the heck had brought him to Miccosukee country, New Times wondered?
"The radio station," responded Elvis (a.k.a. 32-year-old Fort Lauderdale native Chris McDonald). But then he conceded it really was something else: "Yeah, money."
A keen interest in Superpick Lotto precipitated the next debacle, which unfolded in the casino's original gaming room that's connected to the new complex by a long carpeted passageway. A woman holding a wad of twenty-dollar bills was incessantly hitting the play button of a lotto machine. The jackpot had grown to $50,000 and was climbing. "This is $2.50 a push," explained a female casino attendant queried by New Times. Then she looked at New Times's notebook. "Are you writing things down? You have to come with me," she said. She waved someone over and suddenly muscular security guard Mark McCray appeared. A press pass did not impress McCray.
"We need to go," he ordered. After some negotiation New Times was allowed to continue its intrepid work.
There was even more strife out at the Krome-Tamiami crossroads, where at about 8:00 p.m. interminable lines of traffic were still moving more slowly than pedestrians. Florida Department of Transportation Ofcr. Jorge Fernandez was barely surviving in the center of the intersection. The driver of a white four-wheel-drive truck inched forward. Fernandez motioned him to stop, but the driver again stepped on the gas. "Do you see me?! Do you see me? Do you see me?" the officer screamed, pointing his hands to his chest. His five-person traffic-directing crew was woefully insufficient. "If we had known it was going to be like this, we would have asked for at least ten guys."
A diverse spectrum of automobiles, partygoers, and tempers abounded on the south side of the Tamiami Trail as well, especially at the Dade Corners service station. Sometime during the evening the entreprenuerial owners had started charging ten bucks per vehicle for parking. Several car owners who had locked their doors and disappeared across the highway before the capitalist spirit took hold returned to find their cars towed. "We're losing business because people are parking here," insisted Dade Corners owner Jorge Almirall, as customers streamed in and out of his store.
Things grew even hotter as the Miccosukees' unbridled inauguration proceeded. At 10:30 the fireworks commenced. Offer Derby, a crackerjack pyrotechnics expert from Israel, launched the luminous projectiles from the hotel roof. Flaming embers rained down on the brand-new edifice, causing some spectators to wonder if it would ignite. In fact, it did. "There's a fire on a balcony!" a security guard yelled into his walkie-talkie as he crossed the parking lot. As the flames engulfed the veranda, the fireworks raged on. A long five minutes later, two men with extinguishers burst onto the burning balcony and reduced the blaze to a small black cloud. People gazed in awe. Steve Freedman, whose company Sparktacular put on the unregulated display, said rooftop launches are prohibited elsewhere in South Florida. "Up in Boca Raton you have a real hard time doing that," he explained. "They used to do that in downtown Miami, but they stopped it. Someone got scared."
Sometime between 11:00 and midnight the balance of crowd power switched. The stream of pedestrians walking to their cars was bigger than the trickle heading into the resort. A few people stopped to marvel at an alligator in the Tamiami Canal.
The Miccosukees weren't the only ones raking in the cash. Their new resort was also contributing to local small businesses in ways even Mayor Penelas couldn't envision. Across the road in front of the service station, Faustino Monteagudo was grinning like a hyena through the window of his Orange State Towing flatbed. "We had a great night," Monteagudo commented. He pulled across Krome Avenue for his seventh tow of the evening (at $35 each): a four-wheel-drive stuck in a mudhole.
Back in the second-floor bar, chairman Cypress was settling deeper into his lounge chair as money poured into the gambling machines below. "It's time for the next chapter," he said with a contented, but tired, smile.