Poker profits up in the Sunshine State

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If you’ve read my past couple of columns you know 2010 is a year where Florida is at a crossroads. The day-cruise industry, a long mainstay for poker players around the state, is hanging by a thread, seeing its ranks dwindle from nearly 20 to fewer than five. Its flagship company Sun Cruz, which also has a ship in South Carolina, finds itself along with a number of others in the industry in bankruptcy liquidation. One can only wonder if that industry will still be dealing cards on boats leaving from Florida at the close of 2010.

While one industry segment is seeing considerable contraction, another is seeing growth. The parimutuel cardrooms are on the upswing. The first half of the state fiscal year indicates a healthy 7 percent growth in the state’s poker handle, which bodes well for the industry when viewed in light of a continued increase in Florida’s unemployment numbers and other recessionary indicators. A new room opened in Pensacola and new permits for poker rooms were issued in North Florida and Ocala. Applications are pending for a couple of other locations in the Jacksonville area and Homestead.

Despite these favorable overall statistics, there are facilities struggling. The state regulators issued their first shutdown order for a poker room. Citing a host of operational violations, Jefferson County Kennel Club’s poker room was the subject of an emergency shutdown order until its operational issues were remedied. This room, which has long been the state’s lowest producer in terms of poker handle, is expected to remedy the issues and reopen, but it still faces a number of marketplace challenges impacting its success. Hamilton Jai-Alai continues to see declining handle since the entry of Ocala Jai-Alai’s poker room into the north-central Florida marketplace.

Where 2010 will take the industry is anyone’s guess. The Legislature killed the gaming compact between the governor and the Seminole Tribe, which sets off a showdown of sorts involving the federal government, the Florida Legislature and the Seminole Tribe. Until a determination is made by the National Indian Gaming Commission on the legality of the Seminoles’ blackjack operation, all indications are we will sit at stalemate on the changes to Florida’s poker laws to increase the operating hours and lift the betting limits on Florida’s poker rooms. While rumors are rampant of an imminent shutdown ruling from the NIGC, nothing has happened since federal officials came down to Florida to inspect the parimutuel electronic blackjack games.

With the 60-day legislative session beginning March 2, things will begin to move quickly on the legislative front. In the meantime, check www.floridagamingwatch.com, which keeps you up to date on the latest news affecting the gambling industry in Florida.

— Marc W. Dunbar is a shareholder with Tallahassee law firm Pennington, Moore, Wilkinson, Bell & Dunbar, P.A.  He represents several gaming clients before the Florida Legislature and teaches gambling and parimutuel law at the Florida State University College of Law.