Like a handful of similarly cash-strapped states, Florida is currently considering legislation to greatly expand gambling there.
In part thanks to formidable opponents like the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Baptist Convention, and Disney World, the proposal stands a decent chance of dying on the vine during this year’s 60-day legislative session, which ends March 9. But that didn’t stop Malaysian casino giant the Genting Group from purchasing 30 acres of property on Miami’s Biscayne Bay, including the Miami Herald’s current headquarters for $236 million, back in May.
Genting’s plans for the site are grandiose: Resorts World Miami would comprise four hotels, two condo towers, more than 50 restaurants and bars, a luxury retail shopping “galleria,” a 3.6-acre rooftop lagoon, and – legislation permitting – a casino on 10 million square feet of prime downtown real estate.
Considering the scale of the project, it’s no surprise that it’s elicited strong reactions within Miami. Some independent businesses in and around downtown hear "50 restaurants and bars" as a death knell. Others hear the cha-ching of increased tourist dollars. Some politicians see it as a job engine, others as a traffic nightmare.
Such dichotomies are common when a casino tries to come to town. But in Miami there is also a question of how gambling expansion will affect the arts?
The question is particularly pertinent in the wake of Art Basel Miami Beach’s 10-year anniversary back in December. The annual fair, an extravagant confluence of art and money that is grandiose in its own right, gets a lot of credit as a catalyst for Miami’s ongoing evolution from cultural wasteland to emerging cultural capital. Since its first year, in 2002, art galleries and artists have proliferated. Art Basel Miami Beach also attracts tens of thousands of international tourists, many of them quite wealthy, every year.
Art Basel “has privately warned it might seek a different winter home if the casino resorts move in,” according to the Miami Herald. Its public statement to The Atlantic Cities suggests the same.
"We have not wanted to become involved with the issue itself … but it would present a whole wide range of issues,” says Robert Goodman, the fair’s Florida representative. “It’s a game changer.”
The Knight Foundation, a major funder of the arts in Miami, is also choosing to keep all but quiet on the casino issue.
"This could have a big impact and obviously we are concerned," Knight’s Miami program director, Matt Haggman, says. "But we’re not entering into this public policy debate."
Developer Tony Goldman, one of the driving forces behind the emergence of Wynwood, an art-gallery district north of downtown Miami, is not holding his tongue.
"Gambling sucks the life out of communities," Goldman says. "Miami has such immense value that has been developed over the last 25 years … we’ve developed a multi-culture."
The expansion of gambling to include mega casinos - Genting is not the only gaming company eyeing Miami - would "add zero value to our community," says Goldman. He would "view the city differently" as a developer, he adds, as would patrons of the arts. One such patron, Norman Braman, a wealthy art collector and politically active automotive magnate, has called the casino plan “an assault on the quality of life of our community.” Developer Jorge Perez, who recently donated $35 million in cash and art to the Miami Art Museum (MAM) in exchange for institutional naming rights, has also spoken out against the expansion of gambling.
“People in the arts feel threatened if the casino is coming, and they may indeed respond to it by withdrawing support or badmouthing it to the community, but it’s really just a prejudice,” says Bill Eadington, a gambling industry analyst at the University of Nevada at Reno.
Eadington doesn’t believe mega casinos will stunt Miami’s cultural growth. In fact, he believes they may help. The Genting casino would “have a lot of fine arts-related jobs,” including dancers and musicians, he says. “If you have a facility that is employing 500 artists, it’s going to have an impact.”
Even if those numbers pan out, an important question remains: Will philanthropists and foundations tighten their purse strings if Miami loses its growing reputation as an emerging cultural center and instead becomes known as Las Vegas East?
It’s hard to say, since there are no existing studies on the correlation between casinos and the vitality of their host cities’ arts communities. But the circumstantial evidence raises the possibility that the expansion of gambling in Miami could have a negative material impact on the city’s ongoing cultural development at a time when MAM and the Miami Science Museum are both erecting new, impressive buildings a stone’s throw south of the Genting property.
Against that backdrop, welcoming mega casinos into the Magic City may be a bigger gamble than many people realize.