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Gaming report lays state's cards on the table


Published:   |   Updated: July 19, 2013 at 05:52 AM

TALLAHASSEE - The gambling scene in the Tampa area resembles the rest of the state's: Older sites with dog and horse racing are doing less business while newer venues with slots and cards do well.

That's one reflection from the first volume of an eagerly awaited three-part report on gambling in Florida, commissioned by the Legislature and made public earlier this month.

Officials hope the findings will help answer the thorny question of "what to do about gambling" - including whether to encourage Las Vegas-style "destination" casinos - that could drive much of next year's legislative session.

"Florida is arguably a microcosm of U.S. gaming, with all of the forces that are shaping the industry in other states at play here," the report said. "Absent a plan for growth, these forces will continue unabated in shaping the industry."

New Jersey-based consulting firm Spectrum Gaming will further look at the state's gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe, whose Florida operations include Seminole Hard Rock Tampa.

And its findings will help lawmakers consider whether pari-mutuel centers across the state, such as Tampa Bay Downs and Derby Downs, should be authorized to offer slot machines and table games. Slots are allowed at pari-mutuels in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

The second part of the study, on the economic effects of changes to state gambling policy, is due Oct. 1. Last year, a bill died in the Legislature that would have permitted the construction of three destination hotel-casinos in South Florida.

Gambling has long been part of Tampa culture, starting with illegal games such as bolita, a lottery-style scheme brought over by Cuban immigrants in the 1920s. The name means "little ball" in Spanish.

"In 1938, Tampa featured approximately 125 bolita operations grossing as much as $20,000 per day," the report said.

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With that past as prologue, gambling will keep growing with or without direction from lawmakers, according to the Spectrum report, adding that Florida already is a big gambling state.

In fact, the Seminole Hard Rock Tampa bills itself as the "sixth largest casino in the world," with 118 table games, a new Asian-themed game area, high-stakes poker, and a penny slot room.

Seminole Gaming, which operates Hard Rock Tampa and six other Florida casinos, generated close to $2 billion in gross revenue on gambling alone last year.

"In our case, we've done well for the tribe," said Jim Allen, Seminole Gaming's CEO. "We've tried to make it an exciting place and the Hard Rock brand is one of the best known."

On the other hand, the report paints a darker picture of Tampa Bay Downs, the one thoroughbred track in the state without a casino.

It had operating income of nearly $3 million last year, but purses - money paid to owners of the horses - have "been declining in recent years," according to the report.

"While Tampa Bay continues to be a top-tier thoroughbred track, officials are concerned how much longer that may be," the report said. "As general manager Peter Berube put it, 'Florida sunshine can go just so far.'?"

What he wants next is slot machines.

That would "give me parity with my in-state rivals down south," Berube told The Tampa Tribune. "We're just at a distinct disadvantage."

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At Derby Lane in St. Petersburg, attendance was up a little more than 1 percent year over year for the 12-month period that ended June 30, according to spokeswoman Vera Rasnake. Total attendance for the year was 709,180.

But all of its "products" were down, she said. The "all-source handle," or total amount bet, decreased about 7 percent to $102.6 million. The venue's poker room was down nearly 7 percent, to $8.7 million.

The numbers were based on 414 races, two fewer than the previous year because of storm cancellations, Rasnake said in an email.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, and House gaming committee chairman Rob Schenck, A Republican from Spring Hill, are waiting to read all three volumes of the report before commenting.

"We are still gathering the facts, which both the speaker and chair have said is important before making any recommendations on gaming," spokesman Ryan Duffy said.

Sen. Garrett Richter, a Naples Republican who chairs his chamber's gaming committee, released a statement earlier this month saying the same thing.

"Public hearings will be scheduled for the fall of 2013, so legislators have the opportunity to listen to all interested parties," he added.

Allen of Seminole Gaming said he's game for any expansion of gambling opportunities that lawmakers may consider.

"The tribe would always consider creating more jobs, more revenue and more excitement," he said.

jrosica@tamptrib.com

(850) 765-0807

Twitter: @jlrosicaTBO

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