Gambling choice: Immokalee or Naples?

Florida has long been considered two distinct states: The more rural, conservative north, and the urban South Florida, anchored by Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach. The three counties containing those cities total almost 6 million of the state’s 20 million population, and legislative negotiations of almost any kind are a balance between north and south.

But when it comes to the current state of gambling — and finding a resolution – the sticking point is more a matter of east and west.

State Senator Bill Galvano, long considered the legislative expert when it comes to working out a solution that is fair to all gambling parties, filed his 112-page bill last week. The measure includes just enough to placate everyone, but they all have to give up something, too.

The Seminoles, who in 2010 paid $1 billion for five years of exclusive rights to blackjack and other table games, would leave the door open to South Florida pari-mutuels adding low-stakes blackjack. But they would add craps and roulette, providing them with enough market exclusivity to make a compact legal. (The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1989 states that tribes can pay states only if they have negotiated something above and beyond the usual and prevailing laws in a state.)

Pari-mutuels and others in South Florida would see three more competitors, with one new casino coming to Broward County (Fort Lauderdale) and two to Miami-Dade. So the pie would be sliced into even smaller pieces.

And, statewide, counties that have passed referendums to allow slots at their pari-mutuels could add them.

That’s all well and good, but the difficult negotiation will be in greater Naples, a relaxed area in Southwest Florida near the Gulf of Mexico. Currently, the lone venue for slots and blackjack is operated by the Seminoles in the town of Immokalee, a ramshackle town of about 25,000 – about one-third of whom are below the poverty line. Driving to Seminole Immokalee takes about 30 minutes from the nearest interstate, but people do it, because it’s the only casino in the area.

That is, unless Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Racing and Poker – which would be eligible for slots because Collier County residents approved a referendum – is allowed to expand. The track is only two miles from the heavily traveled Interstate 75.

And that could put a huge dent into the revenues of the Immokalee casino.

That’s a deal-breaker for the Seminoles, who have invested in a hotel on the Immokalee property. The casino is responsible for only about 7 percent of the tribe’s $2.2 billion annual revenue, but while the Seminoles’ other casinos would take a small hit because of increased competition, their locational disadvantage here is immense.

Senator Galvano has adroitly found a way to make the bill palatable to conservative legislators – dormant permits must be killed off, which allows those against gambling expansion at least the appearance of some contraction in the state – and there’s optimism in Tallahassee because the bill is on the table in plenty of time, well before the house and senate convene. That said, these are going to be tough negotiations, and all parties involved are willing to dig in their heels and dare the other side to blink.

Legislators, casino operators, and pundits have all compared the complicated Florida gambling landscape to a Rubik’s cube. If that’s true, we could have a scenario where all the squares line up — except the southwest corner.

Twitter: @NickSortal