New casinos still months away - Friday 15th of February 2008

Construction plans for Miami-Dade Countys new slot-machine casinos mean grand openings are probably at least 18 months away.

Voters approved slot machines in Miami-Dade County but the first jackpots are at least 18 months away, as the owners of Flagler Dog Track, Miami Jai-Alai and Calder Race Course draw up plans for the new slots casinos.

The three facilities won the right to offer the Las Vegas-style games by a 63 percent margin after the Jan. 29 vote. Next step: renovations and construction to house up to 2,000 slot machines at each existing track and fronton.

At Flagler and Miami Jai-Alai -- where owners had prepared swanky, tropical-looking architectural renderings of their proposed casinos long before the election -- the construction is expected to take 18 months to two years. Calder is keeping its plans quiet until its quarterly meeting with stockholders in mid-March.

This lends a sense of security to the people who work here now and those who may work here in the future, said Ken Dunn, president of Calder. ``Had we lost, the future was not secured.

Under state law, the tracks must continue to offer live racing or jai-alai games even with the new form of gambling. The casino portions of their facilities must be within the current footprint of the building or attached to it.

Both Flagler and Miami Jai-Alai owners envision sports entertainment complexes with restaurants, perhaps taking a lesson from the successful Seminole Tribe Hard Rock Casinos, which offer food, shopping and concerts along with gambling.

SALE ON THE HORIZON?

But the jai-alai fronton also might be sold: Isle of Capri casinos, which already owns the Isle harness racetrack and casino at Pompano Park in Broward County, struck a deal in 2004 that gave Isle first right to negotiate for the purchase of the fronton if slot machines were approved. Isle has six months to work out a deal with Florida Gaming, owner of the fronton.

The two companies made the agreement before the 2005 election in which Broward voters approved slots but Miami-Dade voters narrowly rejected them. Isle, a St. Louis-based casino company, owns more than a dozen casinos including one on Grand Bahama, part of the Our Lucaya resort.

But at Flagler, the owners say they have no intention of selling a third-generation family business.

This is a new phase of our old family business, said Barbara Havenick, CEO of the company.

She said Flaglers new Magic City Casino will house about 1,500 slot machines and an outdoor amphitheater that she hopes will harken back to the old Miami Marine Stadium, the waterfront, open-air facility closed since Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992.

I remember the Marine Stadium -- my family used to go there. I think this community would welcome something like that again, she said. ``We want to make something that the city will be proud of.

Her father, Isadore Hecht, owned the track a half-century ago when it was a bustling, glamorous hangout, and her husband, Fred Havenick, ran the place until his death from lymphoma in 2006. Fred Havenick had been one of the organizers to push for slots three years ago. He died shortly after the first vote, in 2005, when Miami-Dade rejected the idea.

PRESENT IN SPIRIT

This time around, when slot machines passed on Jan. 29, Barbara Havenick said she thought her husband was present in spirit.

On Election Day, I think Freddie was at every single polling place helping people vote the right way, Barbara Havenick said. ``He was very passionate about this.

Now her sons, Izzy and Alex, will help guide the family business into casino gambling.

In its heyday, this was the most beautiful dog track in the country, Havenick said. I would like to make this a wonderful showcase for the city of Miami, a destination for the community. . . . My father always said, youve got to be good to the city thats good to you. And thats what we want to do. She said she hopes to begin demolition in preparation for renovations in August.

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