Miami Beach Commissioners Vote to Ban Casinos From City

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For now, the state's headlong rush to allow more casinos in Miami-Dade looks to be dead in the water. But Miami Beach commissioners aren't taking any chances when it comes to slot machines in SoBe.

The commission voted this morning to push forward a zoning change that would ban all gambling establishments anywhere in the city. The vote was a rebuff to one of the Beach's most iconic hotels: The Fontainebleau has said it would like to open a casino, and this morning its lobbyist urged commissioners to do more economic studies before passing a ban.

But commissioners argued it was already clear that any gambling on the Beach would wreck the tourism economy and bring crime and blight to the area.

"What happened last week in the Legislature really scares me," Commissioner Ricky Arriola said. "What the Legislature almost pulled off would have put us in a really bad situation."

All last month, the Florida House and Senate looked close to agreeing on a new deal with the Seminole Tribe that would have included an extra gaming license for Miami-Dade County, opening the door for at least one casino downtown or even across the bay in Miami Beach. Both Magic City Casino — which has already asked for permission to build a casino in Edgewater — and the Fontainebleau stepped up their interest in nabbing that license.

But yesterday that gambling plan fell apart in Tallahassee when House and Senate leaders couldn't agree on a deal, which has similarly died in the state Legislature every session for years.

Miami Beach officials say they were alarmed at how close the bill came to passing this year, though. That's why they rammed through a quickly written plan that would alter the Beach's zoning map to prohibit gambling within city limits.

At this morning's meeting, several residents and local power players urged the commission to do anything possible to keep poker tables out of Miami Beach.

"This is so important," said former Commissioner Bob Goodman, who noted he'd been a part of similar arguments more than four decades ago. Goodman represents Art Basel and says the art fair would likely leave the city if casinos showed up. "Our position as Art Basel hosts would be in jeopardy."

Goodman also read a letter from car dealer and GOP power player Norman Braman, who argued that the science is clear on the links between crime and gambling. "Gambling's costs, both socioeconomic and police, far outweigh any economic benefits," he wrote.

Even Commissioner Michael Grieco and former state Sen. Dan Gelber — who are set to square off in a battle for Miami Beach mayor — agreed on the need to ban casinos.

"Mr. Gelber and myself are on the same page with this," Grieco noted. "It's bigger than politics."  

The Fontainebleau's lobbyist urged the commission to wait on the vote since the bill had stalled in Tally, but the commission voted unanimously (minus Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, who was absent) to send the zoning change along to the city's planning board; it could return for a second reading at the commission's meeting next month.

Arriola warned that banning gambling on the Beach is only half the equation: If the City of Miami doesn't take similar measures, he argued, an "arms race" would likely explode between hotels on either side of the bay.

"What we're doing today is vitally important, but it can't be done in vacuum," he said. "We need to partner with Miami across the bay... because it's a slippery slope. It's a cascade effect, and before you know it, gambling will be across Dade County because every hotel will be saying, 'I need slot machines to compete.'"

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