Florida Gov. Crist, Seminole tribe ink expanded gaming pact

A November agreement between Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Tribe of Florida will dramatically change the gambling face of a state that has historically opposed casinos.

The deal, if ratified by the state Legislature, will allow the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa and six other Seminole-owned gambling clubs to offer blackjack, baccarat and, the biggest draw of all, Las Vegas-style slot machines. That would leave only sports gambling, roulette and craps still prohibited in Florida.

The U.S. Department of the Interior has 45 days to approve the gambling compact. If that happens, as expected, Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, said the tribe would expect to begin offering the more sophisticated slot machines and card games sometime next year.

But the agreements are expected to face legislative opposition and, perhaps, a lengthy court challenge. Horse and dog tracks and jai alai fronton operations contend Crist’s deal with the tribe puts them at a distinct competitive disadvantage.

Another potential damper to the deal is a recent South Florida Sun-Sentinel investigative report that questioned the business ethics of the Seminole Tribal Council. According to the report, some council members have voted in favor of business deals that have substantially benefited them and family members, including enterprises such as valet parking and landscaping attached to the tribe’s gaming properties.

The Seminoles have already expanded their Tampa Hard Rock facility to 150,000 square feet of gaming space, making it the largest casino in Florida. And with the new agreement, Bitner said, expansion plans are being considered for three other locations, including a Hard Rock facility in Hollywood and casinos in Coconut Creek and Immokalee.

Bitner said the gambling expansion, which will bring the state an additional $100 million or more in tax revenue each year, will create thousands of new jobs.

Voters gave parimutuel facilities in Broward the ability to install Vegas-style, or Class III, slot machines in their facilities. Three tracks in that county have added the slots that offer bigger payouts than the Class II electronic bingo machines the Seminoles now have at their casinos.