SO MAYBE ALL ABOARD FLORIDA IS ALL ABOARD GAMBLERS

Publish Date: 
Saturday, March 7, 2015 - 7:00am

This might be the missing piece, the one that makes the puzzle clear to see.
I’m talking about the “Florida Gaming Control Act of 2015,” a bill proposed in Tallahassee this week that would authorize two “destination resort” casinos in South Florida.

What do I see from this piece? All Aboard Florida. For months now, we’ve been encouraged to imagine that millions of Floridians and tourists will be clamoring to ride a new passenger rail service that would connect South Florida to Orlando.

All Aboard Florida’s ridership survey has estimated that as many as 5 million passengers a year would be getting off at stops in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach as they use the train to connect to Florida’s existing entertainment options.

It’s been hard to imagine 32 trains a day, each one with most of its 400-seat capacity filled. Or to envisioning the ridership survey’s claim that riders would get off the train in West Palm Beach to make connections to Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter or to the South Florida Fairgrounds, more than 10 miles to the west.

Mass transit connections in Florida are far and few between. And whatever minutes are saved in rail travel between South Florida and Orlando would be squandered in catching a public bus to make the final leg of the trip.

But what if there’s no connection to make? What if the final destination was the station itself, or something very close to the station?

One of All Aboard Florida ‘s first moves has been to work on the development of the Miami station.

Fortress Investment Group, the New York company behind the train service, has asked the Federal Aviation Authority to approve a 1,120-foot tall building on the 11-acre parcel slated to be the Miami station.

You wouldn’t expect a passenger rail service to become preoccupied with building what would be the state’s tallest skyscraper at one of its stations, a building that would be taller than the Chrysler Building in New York.

Unless there was something really special about that station.

For years now, casino interests have been clamoring to open shop in South Florida.

Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson bankrolled the opposition to Florida’s medicinal marijuana amendment last year. He used about $5 million of his money to sway a referendum in a state where he doesn’t live, but would like to do business. And his anti-marijuana cash bought him influence with Gov. Rick Scott and the state’s legislative leaders, the people he would need to make his Florida casino dreams come true.

And Adelson isn’t alone. The Genting Group, a Malaysian casino company that bought up a large tract of land near the station, has drawn up plans for the world’s largest casino in Miami.

Meanwhile, the Seminole Tribe of Florida has an exclusive contract to run the only Las-Vegas style casinos permitted in Florida. But that contract expires this year.

So the state of gambling in Florida is in flux this year, with any expansion certain to meet the disapproval of The Walt Disney Company, which has seen casinos as an attack on their family-oriented theme park business.

So it’s not a clear path.

But with a resort casino at the south end of the route, All Aboard Florida has a new mission and the sort of believable ridership prospects it has lacked so far.

Because it’s not hard to imagine that among the tens of millions of people each year who endure all that family-friendly “fun” at Central Florida’s theme parks, there will be many a dad who will look longingly at a train schedule that would put him at a craps table in Miami in three hours.

So maybe All Aboard Florida is really just All Aboard Gamblers.

And we’re just starting to see all the cards being played.