Destination Casinos Are Nixed, but Pari-Mutuels Stagger Onward; Bergeron Eyes a New One

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This year's legislative session has issued its first blow to Florida gambling, roundly rejecting the proposed "destination casinos" like the one Malaysian company Genting wanted to build on Biscayne Bay.

So we're left with the current situation: Indian casinos like the Seminole Hard Rock, and the pari-mutuels: strange old bastions of jai alai, dog racing, and harness racing, where slots and poker rooms are also allowed. Every night, these old games proceed with minimal spectators while the slots and cards rake in the money.

But a few weeks ago, a proposal drew attention: Developer Ron Bergeron submitted a plan to build a jai-alai casino on his own residence at the swamp's edge in Weston. What gives?

Turns out Bergeron was originally interested in quarter-horse racing, according to his attorney and 10 percent partner in the prospective casino, David Romanik.

"No more quarter-horse permits were available in Broward," says Romanik. So he told Bergeron, a longtime associate, that they could pursue a jai-alai permit under a state rule.

The Summer Permit Statute allows a pari-mutuel facility with the lowest handle (gambling revenue) for the preceding two fiscal years to "convert" its permit into a summer jai-alai permit, which means jai alai can be played in the summer but cards/slots can continue all year long.

The state rejected Romanik's submission (marked in several places by Bergeron's florid signature, taking up the entire page), saying that no more permits were available in Broward and questioning Romanik's implication that Summersport Jai Alai, an existing venue, could "convert" its permit to a new jai-alai permit since its permit already was for jai alai. Romanik, addressing the question of "how can you convert to yourself" (his words), says he needs to conduct further review but doesn't see anything in the statutes preventing him from moving ahead with the plan.

This all hinges on the state not "decoupling" the old competition sports from poker and slot rooms -- something that has been floated as a possibility, spelling doom for races and jai alai. And will people actually want to come see jai alai? That's not as critical as you might think. "A jai alai [fronton] can easily become an auditorium, a place for events," says Romanik.

"We're ready to respond" to the deficiency letter, he says. "I don't think it's insurmountable."

Oh, and the place wouldn't be built on Bergeron's ranch -- the permit would be transferred to a site in a municipality that wanted a new gaming site.

So the big casino companies may be out for now, but as long as there's still business to be done with the old pari-mutuel rules, there will be the possibility of new gaming sites in South Florida.

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