Joe Carollo's Chevy Impala idles at a red light on North Bayshore Drive at NE 14th Street. Dressed in a neat white polo shirt tucked into pressed khaki pants, the former Miami mayor is on a short tour of what could be the most ambitious redevelopment project in the city's history. "Here is where the Genting Group wants to put a fountain," he says with a scowl.
The light turns green. As Carollo cruises toward 1 Herald Plaza, he points to the perimeter of the Miami Herald's employee parking lots. "Those sidewalks belong to the city," Carollo asserts. "In their promotional video, Genting is building over them and this street I'm driving on."
He makes a left past the Omni Metromover station. "That land is owned by the taxpayers too," Carollo declares, gesturing toward the station. "In their presentation, Genting's big lagoon starts where that bus depot and the Metromover station are located." By his calculation, the Malaysian gaming giant's planned megacasino resort will gobble up six acres of publicly owned land and millions of dollars more in air rights. That's on top of the 13.9 acres including the Herald's waterfront headquarters purchased in May for $236 million and the recently garnered control of the cavernous Omni property for a cool $206 million.
Carollo is part of a growing wave of people — including two other ex-Miami mayors, one of the city's most prominent attorneys, and a top developer — to begin building roadblocks to Genting's $3 billion plan. Citing the company's reputed ties to an organized-crime figure, a mysterious trip that Miami's current mayor and his pro-gambling consigliere took to the Far East, and the possible giveaway of more than $100 million in public land, Carollo contends Genting's project is a disaster in the making. Complicating matters further is the Herald's role in reporting on a deal involving its longtime home. As demonstrated by some of the newspaper's recent effusive coverage of Genting's proposal, the Herald — which employs more reporters than anyone else in town — is severely conflicted.
"This company is like Hernán Cortés marching through Mexico, and the Herald is like the Miami Dolphins cheerleaders," Carollo says, his hands squeezing the wheel. "They are on the sidelines, yelling, 'Go! Go! Go!'"
Two weeks ago, in front of 500 luminaries and reporters from every local media outlet, Genting executives unveiled the company's master plan to transform the area around historic 1 Herald Plaza into a titanic version of a Swarovski figurine. Dubbed Resorts World Miami, the plan includes four hotels and two residential towers shaped like coral reefs, with exterior walls lined by LED lights. The buildings sit atop an eight-story structure, as well as a casino, a convention center, a theater, restaurants, and shops. Then there is a lagoon, which will be equivalent in size to 12 Olympic pools.
Genting is no stranger to South Florida. The company purchased Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line 12 years ago. Over the past decade, it has become the number one casino resort developer in the Far East, with a market capitalization of $45 billion. Its flagship resort, Genting Highlands in Malaysia, has six hotels, two apartment buildings, and a golf and country club. The firm has also developed a $5.5 billion casino resort in Singapore and recently won a bid to develop the Aqueduct racino in Queens, New York, by submitting $380 million cash up front to the Empire State.
In the company's efforts to expand to Singapore and New York, Genting has gotten into trouble. For instance, in 2007, Singapore gaming officials forced Genting to pull out of a partnership to build a hotel casino in China's Macao region. The reason: The company's then-partner, Stanley Ho Hung-sun, AKA "the Hong Kong King of Gambling," had been identified by international and U.S. law enforcement officials as a money launderer for the Chinese Triads' crime syndicate. When Genting was vying for the Aqueduct project last year, a New Jersey Casino Control Commission probe into another casino operator revealed that a subsidiary of the Malaysian conglomerate operated a VIP gambling room partly owned by Ho's daughter.
Resorts World Miami senior vice president Christian Goode tells New Times there are no direct or indirect ties to the accused money launderer: "Genting has no relationship with Mr. Ho or his company."
Genting has also been accused of breaking gaming laws and regulations. In May, ten days before purchasing the Miami Herald property, Genting was fined $425,000 by Singapore's Casino Regulatory Authority. The firm, which has been operating in Singapore since last year, committed four breaches of the island nation's Casino Control Act, including failing to retain surveillance camera footage for a specified period of time.
A New York board also investigated two Genting executives accused of self-dealing, conflicts, and questionable activities on the Aqueduct deal, but found no wrongdoing except for a couple of technical violations that resulted in small fines.
Despite those problems, which have been downplayed by the local media, Miami Republican state Rep. Erik Fresen is drafting a bill that would allow Genting to bid on one of three licenses for resort-style casinos in South Florida. To push the deal, the company has hired several prominent politicians, including former U.S. Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Miami-Dade school board member Carlos Curbelo.
To help persuade lawmakers, Genting promises it can have a casino up and running inside the Omni center by next year, resulting in 5,000 new jobs and $100 million in tax revenue. The company claims it will create 45,000 temporary and permanent jobs once the entire Resorts World Miami project is completed.
"I do support the casino resort because it will create so many jobs," Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez says. "It's a game changer."
His Miami counterpart, Tomás Regalado, also backs Genting. Carollo, who ran the city from 1998 to 2001, says Regalado's recent weeklong trip to Taiwan should raise questions. For one, the trip took place the same time the deal to buy the Herald was announced. For another, Regalado was accompanied by senior policy advisor Mikki Canton.
Canton is a lawyer who worked on a failed petition to legalize gambling in 1995. Her name also came up in the corruption trial of disgraced former Florida House Speaker Bo Johnson, who was convicted in 1999 of tax evasion. During his trial, it was revealed he had accepted $250,000 to work on a gambling petition from Bally's Casino Holdings Inc., Canton's client at the time. A witness against Johnson testified that Canton was present for an after-hours meeting in Johnson's legislative office to discuss the drive.
"It seems odd that Regalado would take someone to Taiwan who knows how to get things done for the gambling industry in Tallahassee," Carollo says.
Reached by telephone, Canton says she went on the trip as part of a $3,000-per-month contract to advise Regalado on expanding trade and economic development between Miami and Asian cities. She laughs off the ex-mayor's conspiracy claim. "That is just silly," Canton scoffs. "I have never met or spoken to anyone from Genting."
Ray Mou, executive director of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Coral Gables, informs New Times that his government treated Regalado and Canton. "We covered their airfare on China Airlines and their hotel accommodations," Mou says. "During the trip, we had fruitful discussions about establishing a stronger relationship."
But Carollo is not the only community leader to raise a cautionary alarm about Genting's intentions. Supporters of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts have formed a nonprofit to develop a master plan that, if approved, would ensure that Resorts World Miami or any similar project complements the neighborhood. The group includes Regalado's predecessor Manny Diaz and Jeb Bush's former partner Armando Codina, who told the Herald the casino resort could create a traffic nightmare. He also opined that "things don't necessarily flourish in the shadow of casinos."
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And former Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez, now a county commissioner, says the city would be better served by creating an open public space similar to the one along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago that would connect the performing arts center district to Bicentennial Park. "Miami will be the most exciting global city because of its natural, cultural, and human assets, not because we have casinos," Suarez says.
Of course, much of Carollo's theorizing could be apocryphal. Kuala Lumpur — site of Genting's headquarters — and Taipei are 2,000 miles apart, so Regalado's trip might have indeed been irrelevant to the casino plan. No deal for public land has even been considered. And Herald managing editor Rick Hirsch defends the newspaper's two dozen Genting stories in the past five months as fair and balanced: "There is a real spotlight on how we cover Genting. We take that very seriously."
Nevertheless, Carollo is gearing up for a counterproposal. "Why can't the city build its own casino?" Carollo says, turning away from the Omni to head back to his home in Coconut Grove. "Promise the county a percentage and put out a request for proposals. At least that would ensure that a bulk of the revenue actually stays in Miami instead of funneling back to Malaysia."