COVER STORY: When will Orlando cash in on poker?

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Maybe Disney World is a cover for a secret Mafia family. Mickey Mouse is the godfather and Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto make up his caporegime. How else can you explain why the Orlando area — the heart of Florida — is without parimutuel poker?

No poker at Orlando Jai-Alai. No poker at Sanford-Orlando Kennel Club.

“I think it’s because of the Disney family-friendly kind of thing,” said David Yeager, mayor of Minneola, a town about 15 miles northwest of downtown Orlando that he hopes to transform into an entertainment mecca with, of course, poker. “They say (a gaming facility offers) a lot of bad elements. Well, let me tell you, if you look at the police reports on (International) Drive, family-friendly has bad elements already. So that doesn’t hold water.”

Perhaps it’s just gambling in general Orlando and its neighbors oppose.

“Here’s the funny, stupid part I guess,” Yeager said. “If you go to conventions, guess what they have? ‘Well, tonight we’re having casino night! Here’s fake money (to gamble with) and then we’ll auction prizes off (with your winnings).’ Well, that’s gambling, guys! That’s gambling, and it happens every night in Orlando. Every night. So, we’re helping who?” 

If you detect sarcasm in Yeager’s comments you’re right. His town of about 8,000 residents is having an economic crisis and he wants gaming to help save them. He’s taking steps to make Minneola a destination for those who want to enjoy all of the Orlando attractions — but have some adult fun afterward.

“Disney, if they like it or not, probably could get some people that actually want to come here and spend Disney during the day and go to Minneola (at night). So they’re bringing money to me (and) to you and the economy’s going to be good. … Will it pass by a great margin? No, but will (approval for a county vote) pass? Absolutely, (but) that’s in my mind, OK? That’s in my mind.”

And apparently only in his mind. On May 5 Lake County commissioners turned down his request for a countywide vote, mostly citing election cost as the catalyst for the rejection.
Yeager still wants to build a complex that would include a five-star resort hotel, a shopping area, a 3,000-seat entertainment facility, more than 150,000 square feet of convention space, an ice-skating rink, a horse-racing track, and, obviously, a poker room.
Clearly Yeager thought he had enough “County Fathers” on his side to send this to a countywide vote, despite the conservative nature of Lake County. Now he faces raising the money himself.

“I have to take care of this town, and that’s what I’m gonna do,” he said. (See accompanying story) “They tell me it’s the Bible belt, and I respect that very, very much. But if you look at the Seminole Compact now, even the school boards are getting behind them because it’s a great way to generate money. … We need money. Children’s education is important and this is just perfect timing.”

Is now the time for other parimutuels?

Yeager’s sentiments are shared with other Orlando-area entrepreneurs and parimutuels (and yes, there are gambling facilities in the vicinity of Disney World, though most were established before Walt came to town). Sanford-Orlando Kennel Club has been in business for more than 70 years, holding its first meet in 1935. Make no mistake; greyhounds are king here with a 12-month racing season. But that doesn’t mean the SOKC wouldn’t like a share of the poker pie.

“I can’t speak for any of the other Orlando-area parimutuels,” SOKC general manager Mark Loewe said, “but since (Penn National Gaming) purchased the facility in November 2007, we have been working closely with the surrounding community in building professional relationships and moving toward attaining approval for a card-room license.”
State law mandates parimutuel facilities get approval from local government in to offer poker.

Loewe, who has been with SOKC since February 2008, says PNG has a lot to offer locals who’d like to play poker at his facility in Longwood, about 10 miles north of Orlando.
“Being a large gaming company we can bring a wealth of experience and professionalism to the expanded operation,” he said. “That being said, we want to do it properly through the approval process in place and working with the community as a whole. … Given the opportunity I believe we can establish a very successful operation. It will not happen overnight, but long term it will be a positive for the Orlando area.”

And again, it all comes down to the economy. SOKC has had more than 10 years to try to bring poker there — first with Collins & Collins’ SOKC Inc., and then with PNG – but is choosing now to seriously pursue approval.

“Any additional choices that we can offer to our patrons will help the bottom line,” Loewe said. “Many patrons from this market are driving considerable distances to play at existing venues, so I believe we will be able to draw well and generate additional revenues, which will also benefit the greyhound owners and trainers.”

The War on I-4

If someone living in the Orlando area wants to play poker at a parimutuel facility, they have to drive to Daytona Beach, Ocala, Melbourne or Tampa — at least an hour drive just to play cards.

That was the thought behind DeBary Downs, which later became known as the DeBary Town Center and Equestrian Park (it eventually would have housed a poker room). The developer, Green Bridge Co. of Iowa (renamed locally as DeBary Real Estate Holdings to win favor with the public), met an incredible amount of opposition to its project, which ultimately met its demise on Dec. 13 when the DeBary City Council voted 3-2 against after a six-hour meeting. The family that owns Green Bridge also founded the Isle of Capri casinos and is planning to build a quarterhorse track and poker room in Ft. Myers.

The situation in DeBary grew ugly, with dueling Web sites, billboards, television/radio commercial campaigns and lawsuits being doled out like candy on Halloween. And this ugliness is nothing new to parimutuels. Orlando Jai-Alai, which held its first season in 1963, has been trying to get poker approval for years, but the government continues to stand in its way.

“In the early days,” Orlando Jai-Alai general manager Santi Echaniz said, “when poker became legal (with) a positive vote from the local county board of commissioners, owner Hort Soper hired a consultant to be our intermediary with the county to feel them out about how they would vote. We were basically told not to even bother trying to have it come to a vote because it would not pass. That was true from then until now.”

Echaniz, a former jai-alai player who played that first season in Orlando, said Soper even wanted to combine efforts with its gaming neighbor to acquire poker rooms for both properties.

“Mr. Soper approached the owners of Sanford-Orlando Kennel Club (the Collins family and more recently Penn National), about going to the county together to try to make a deal that would be tempting during these tough budget years, but it has not happened.”

The folks at Orlando Jai-Alai are hoping what occurred in Pensacola might trickle down to their neck of the woods. The Escambia County Commission in December voted 3-2 against allowing Pensacola Greyhound Track to expand into poker operations. But Kevin White, the District 5 commissioner, had a change of heart and demanded a revote. On Feb. 19 the commission reconvened and approved the request.

However, Echaniz says as far as he knows, nothing has changed in his area.

“We haven’t heard of any shifts in opinion even with these hard economic times,” he said. “Mr. Soper made a very generous offer to the City of Casselberry to share our increased revenues but we still got nowhere. Sometimes I wonder if the voters knew what their elected officials were turning down, if they would approve. … I don’t believe all county and local commissioners are personally opposed to poker. Maybe some actually have a moral objection, but most simply don’t want to be the one to vote for an ‘expansion of gambling.’ ”

Susan Doerner, a commissioner with Casselberry since 2002, says that’s precisely why she won’t approve poker at the fronton.

“I think any expansion would be a negative,” the second-term commissioner said. “I would not support it. … In terms of the types of jobs that it actually brings in, as well as the monetary input, it is not that dramatic. … It’s not a high range of jobs that it provides. It’s mostly service-entry level… In the past I’ve heard it would provide hundreds of jobs, but I haven’t seen anything that actually shows that.”

Fellow Casselberry commissioner Jon Miller, who’s been in office since November 2006, says he’s not so much against a gambling expansion as he opposes its location on U.S. Highway 17-92.

“Specifically, there, I would say yes,” Miller said, when asked if he would contest Orlando Jai-Alai getting a poker room. “I’m not necessarily opposed to gambling as a whole. I guess my concern is depending on where you put it. If it was more in the Lake Mary area where it kind of appealed to a higher clientele then I think it makes more sense. Our city has dealt with the influences of adult entertainment in our community for years. Not as much as a moralistic standpoint but more from a financial standpoint, it made it very difficult to redevelop our city, as far as bringing in new economic development. … That strip there isn’t necessarily going to attract the highest clientele. I see folks getting off the bus and going over there. If I thought it was going to be a higher clientele base perhaps it would be different.”

The economic windfall Florida’s other frontons (and tracks) have enjoyed from poker didn’t seem to interest Miller, who still seemed more intrigued in attracting players with larger bankrolls and patrons of “higher” stature. When pressed about the tough times and asked if the Casselberry commissioners should reconsider he said: “I understand at the state level what it means for everybody, and I’m a person who’ll go to Vegas. I guess I kind of see it as the difference between Vegas and Reno, if you will, depending on where the gambling and gaming take place. I just don’t think where we are … it would necessarily appeal to a demographic to uplift the community as we develop economic redevelopment in the area.”

Is Miller, whose term in Seat 2 ends in 2010, saying the fronton is something he despises having in his city?

“No, I appreciate Orlando Jai-Alai and what they do. (But) if you expand the gambling and gaming tables … you’re not going to attract the high rollers at the current location.”
Sounds like Orlando Jai-Alai needs a new address.

Play for free if you like

One business that has reaped the rewards of no parimutuel poker has been free poker leagues, which dot the Orlando area like measles on a 2-year-old. The granddaddy of the half-dozen or so free leagues in Orlando is the World Poker Tour Amateur Poker League. The WPTAPL has about 15,000 players in the Orlando area (about 30K statewide), averaging 35-40 players per tournament at 23 venues (29 events per week). But A.J. Wiley, director of business development for the WPTAPL, says his league is successful because of what it offers, not the lack of a permanent card room in Orlando.

“We are very successful in areas of Florida such as Tampa where there are local parimutuels and, of course, the Hard Rock,” Wiley said. “Our league provides the opportunity to players who are interested in playing in cash tournaments or games to hone their skills and learn at no risk. I would say the card rooms have benefited from free bar poker leagues such as ours.”

Wiley says it’s the relationships his league has with local rooms in other areas that help make the WPTAPL successful, and he’d look to embrace that with any of the Orlando-area rooms that eventually come to fruition.

“I would do what I can to work with the card rooms to cross promote,” he said. “We do that very successfully in other parts of the country, including in the Tampa area with The Silks (at Tampa Bay Downs). Ultimately, most of our players are out for some free entertainment and feel their game needs work. That being said, members who are ready to make the transition to cash games have a smooth (path) and a solid relationship with local card rooms.”

The presence of poker in a parimutuel setting in the Orlando area is inevitable. But with so many opinions on how to (or not to) usher in poker, the inevitability needle is still leaning toward never.

He’s fighting city hall from the inside

By Christopher Cosenza
Sacrifice is a word not often associated with politicians, especially during an election year. Most do whatever they can to stay in office, and the last thing they want to do is rock the boat as constituents prepare to make their way to the polls.

Not David Yeager. Politics be damned.

“I don’t do business that way,” said the 51-year-old mayor of Minneola who admits he may be sacrificing his political career here. “‘Oh, OK, I’ll be quiet — because the election’s come up — to make everybody feel good.’ No, I have to represent the people. I have to find ways to get the economy kicked off and make a difference. I don’t play politics. I just go out there, put my ideas out there and let’s go forward. It’s not about ‘Do I worry about coming back?’ I worry about doing the best job while I’m here, and if the people don’t embrace that I understand.”

Yeager, born and raised in Baltimore, has served for four years as mayor of this tiny town just 15 miles northwest of Orlando. But with an unemployment rate in his town nearing double digits, Yeager knew he needed to brainstorm something big to help the roughly 8,000 people who live there. And in February he came up with one word: destination. Yeager wants to make Minneola a destination within a destination.

“My whole dream is basically a Fountainbleau Hotel in miniature,” said Yeager, who admits he isn’t a gambler. “Ice-skating, bowling, parimutuels, horse racing, a big laguna pool. I mean a resort. So people could actually go to Disney in the day and come to the resort for the weekend. … If you’ve ever seen the Fountainbleau Hotel it’s pretty impressive, and it’s been there 50-60 years.”

The complex would be at the Hills of Minneola site on the east side of the new turnpike interchange in Lake County.

“You’re looking at lots of jobs,” he said of the adult-themed complex. “You’re looking at a lot of offshoots of jobs. The turnpike interest will be built faster because if this gets moving and the momentum gets going the people who are developing this area will say ‘OK, we have a driving force to get going because right now our economy is in the hole.’”

Yeager had some early success, getting his city council in March to pass a resolution 4-1 seeking a countywide vote on the project, and Clemont recently got behind him as well, passing its resolution by a vote of 5-0. He also recently received a fax from Gov. Charlie Crist confirming he isn’t exactly in favor of gambling expansion in Florida, but he agrees with Yeager in that the people in his county should be allowed to vote on what they want.

But on May 5 the Lake County commissioners turned down Yeager’s request for a countywide vote to build the complex. Some commissioners were against gambling, some were against having Minneola shoulder a result that the county would vote on, but mostly they were against the cost of the election. So what’s next; is the idea dead?

“I will have to go out and raise the money on my own,” Yeager said. “And what I want to do is basically the same thing (President Barack) Obama did, grassroots. Here we are, here’s what we need to do and here’s what we need to raise. And I believe there are enough gamblers out there that’ll drop $100 and have a hat and a T-shirt for the cause. … This truly is going to be the cash cow for the area. … They can’t say no to me if I fund it myself anyway.”

The cost for a countywide election would be around $317K. Is that a concern?

“No, not if you do it my way,” he said. “Government is by the people, for the people, am I correct? So if I don’t have a multimillion-dollar parimutuel behind me pushing it down people’s throats, this is truly the way to do it. It’s for the people, by the people. Let the people speak. If it’s no, it’s no; if it’s yes, it’s yes. This is the way to do it; this is the way government is supposed to be in the first place.”