12/01/2011 05:20 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2012

Is Miami Ready for a Full House?

Knock, knock. Who's there? Genting. Genting who? Genting with $2 billion to spend.

And that is how Genting is now preparing to build the world's largest resort casino in Miami after its purchase of the Miami Herald site on Biscayne Bay. It's no secret that Miami has been in a desperate financial situation. For the second consecutive year, the City of Miami Commission has declared a "state of urgency," facing a $61 million deficit and a series of investigations against high-level employees and elected officials. Getting out of this mess could have meant the City had to balance their budget and renegotiate pension contracts. Instead, it seems the City is banking on Genting's generous at least $2 billion offer.

While Miamians have traditionally opposed gambling, Genting's bling has turned a lot of heads and eased their fears. They say "Gambling is already here," "A big casino will bring jobs," etc. But, is Miami willing or even ready to take the gamble of being home to the world's largest destination casino? Before Genting gets moving on this venture, the State must approve a referendum approving large-scale gambling in South Florida.

Most South Floridians seem to think Genting will stay and build even if a gambling referendum is not approved by voters, but few of us are skeptical of how generous this (at least) $2 billion investment -- asking for nothing in return -- really is. There's no denying that a $2 billion will yield a monolithic structure on Biscayne Bay -- thousands of rooms, gambling tables, restaurants, and retail stores. In fact, the smallest thing about Genting was the $236 million purchase of the Miami Herald building in Downtown Miami. The real question is whether we are putting all our Magic City eggs in the Genting basket if resort gambling is turned down by voters in 2012.

It seems likely, however, that resort gambling has a future in South Florida, following a successful 2008 referendum allowing Miami-Dade and Broward County pari-mutuels to have slot machines and limited blackjack. Voters approved the referendum by 67% in 2008. South Florida's dismal economy coupled with the support of the older Hispanic generation has given large-scale resort gambling a fighting chance against the anti-gambling folks like former Senators Bob Graham and Dan Gelber, who have vowed to fight the legislative effort to bring gambling to South Florida.

The fight between pro-gambling and anti-gambling folks is almost equally divided. Yet, very few are considering the desperation of voters, particularly in Miami-Dade County, to stabilize the local economy. Voters in Miami-Dade County have been hit with higher millage rates, declining property values, and extreme apathy toward their elected officials. In the City of Miami, the largest municipality in the County, voters have been hit with a dysfunctional administration with three city managers in two years and a fired police chief after a quarrel with the mayor who appointed him -- not to mention the $64 million deficit. This is a winning combination for the group that invests the most and best ease these voters' concerns.
It will be interesting to see what Genting will do if resort gambling is turned down. If approved, many of us who have lived through the Marlins Stadium drama hope Genting's world-class casino will not be another infrastructure nightmare. Let's do the math -- 5,200 rooms, 50 restaurants and bars, 100,000 jobs. Driving on Biscayne Blvd. is already hellish, with 100,000 people trying to make it to work, a few hundred tipsy tourists trying to make it back to their rooms, and shuttles dropping off visitors, it does not seem Downtown Miami can cater to these drastic changes in its infrastructure and transit patters.

The Performing Arts Center has already faced criticism and concern over lack of parking and access by its patrons, more so if this Casino is built to overshadow the Downtown skyline. Much like many major projects in Miami, parking and infrastructure changes are always the challenge, but it has never stopped developers and investors from moving forward. For those of us in Miami, think about leaving the narrow streets of Little Havana after a Marlins game and heading toward Downtown or Miami Beach after Genting's Casino has opened its doors. Maybe this is what Miami needs to consider public transportation, but it doesn't seem that the transit culture will change for another couple of years.

Quality of life is also a concern for the anti-gambling community, who believe gambling will proliferate drug use and alcohol abuse, and perpetuate gambling addictions that will affect our families' economic and overall well-being. Whether these assumptions are accurate or not, the truth is that Downtown Miami's quality of life will change if it becomes the home of the world's largest casino. Law enforcement presence will have to increase throughout the Downtown and surrounding areas. The City has welcomed Genting with open arms, but will residents be happy about picking up the tab for the additional police officers that will need to be put to work to protect our residents and businesses?

Genting should consider housing options for their employees, who are likely to be making average salaries with very little options of affordable housing nearby. The City of Miami's Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) must evaluate the effects of a large-scale casino on the small businesses that currently sit on the Biscayne corridor and sustain the local economy. Protecting the viability of these small businesses against Genting will be no small feat for the City.

Miami's Downtown, small businesses along Biscayne Blvd., high-rise residents, and commuters must be considered before Genting's casino deals Miami a Full House -- of disaster.