Florida Gaming Summit lacks punch

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A funny thing happened on the way to this year’s Florida Gaming Summit.

The raucous debates of the past few years didn’t attend.

When state lawmakers agreed to a long-sought gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe and offered some sweeteners to the state’s parimutuel industry, a lot changed. The tribe could count on some exclusivity for at least five years, parimutuel poker rooms could deal most any game they wanted and for longer hours and everyone involved could take a breath as, for better or for worse, the contentious process had reached an end. And the tone — and attendance — of the gaming summit changed dramatically.

Some at this year’s gathering of movers and shakers of the gaming industry at the Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood in late October sounded similar to years past. Parimutuel owners were still disappointed, as even though the slot machine tax had dropped from 50 percent to 35 percent, the effective change wasn’t enough to fully embrace capital and marketing expenditure increases.

Pat Fowler, executive director of the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling, still reminded us that as gaming options expand in the state, so do calls for help to her hotline. And Wall Street watchers remained dismal on the outlook for marked improvement in profits from the Florida market, but comforted us by saying, yes, Las Vegas continues to do much worse.

And some of the faces had a different tone. Jim Allen, CEO of gaming operations for the Seminole Tribe, opened this session as he always does, but this year instead of reminding attendees about the virtues and fairness of the 20-year fight the tribe was embroiled in with the state, he seemed at peace that he could now focus more on expanding the Hard Rock’s brand around the world. (Though he did offer the somewhat surprising announcement that the past few months have been soft for the Hollywood property).

Yet, there was some freshness to be found. State Rep. Bill Galvano, the Republican who did the unthinkable in the past session and cajoled his fellow party members to see that they needed to pay attention to the Seminole discussions — and throw a bone or two to the parimutuel industry — recalled that perilous journey and gave us a brief look into the future. While the Seminoles have five years of exclusivity on table games in the state, the state shouldn’t wait to discuss what kind of gaming state it wants to be in the future, Galvano said during his luncheon keynote address. In five years, will the state want to renew the pact and limit gaming? Or open it up to outside interests? These are questions that should be asked now, not in four years.

And for the first time, poker got its proper due at an event of this stature. An entire session was devoted to the game, which by and large remains king in this state because of the limited options for other forms of gaming in most of the state. For 50 minutes, a panel that consisted of Palm Beach Kennel Club director of poker operations Noah Carbone, Seminole Immokalee poker room manager Rick O’Connell, former Jacksonville Greyhound Racing director of poker operations Josh Zuckerman and yours truly discussed what the new freedoms have meant in the state, and what they could mean in the future.
Without a doubt, the $100 max buy-in that rooms were forced to offer for three years set the state’s poker industry back. It’ll take time, and nationwide television exposure, for tourists to realize that handcuff is no longer present here.

But there’s enough excitement here to get that nationwide exposure. The Hard Rock Hollywood will host the state’s first World Poker Tour event in April. Orange Park Kennel Club has again hired Ante Up to produce television coverage of its January Chad Brown No-Limit Hold’em Championship and Harrah’s will bring a World Series of Poker circuit event to the Palm Beach Kennel Club on Feb. 17-March 1. (See Page 14 for more on this late-breaking news story.)

Of course, the feasibility of those big events largely rests on whether the state’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering adjusts rules that constrict the use of temporary tournament tables. Director Milt Champion told me he’d take another look at the idea.

In the end, this year’s Florida Gaming Summit packed a lighter punch than in year’s past. But I prefer to look at it as the calm after the storm. And whether the state is ready for it or not, more clouds will be moving in over the course of the next few years.

— Email Scott at scott@anteupmagazine.com