By Jeff “Laca” Conway
In early July 2018, the owners of Magic City Casino were granted a permit from the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering commission to open another jai-alai fronton in the downtown Miami area at 3050 Biscayne Blvd. Their plans were to run a jai-alai schedule from May through November and also allow the complex to host poker games the day after the first jai-alai matches were held. That permit was only awarded after a long legal battle that saw the 1st District Court of Appeals overturn an initial decision by gambling regulators to deny the company’s application.
When word spread quickly in the greater Miami area that more gambling establishments were coming, the locals and the city commissioners went into action. “Oh, my God! How dare you to this!” Their concern was that this was going to be an entry for much more extensive gambling in the downtown area like slots machines and blackjack. West Flagler Associates, the owners of Magic City and formally the Flagler Dog Track, had argued their only intention was to run the jai-alai games on a small court and have the poker room. No further gambling like slot machines and blackjack.
On July 23, 2018, Miami city commissioners voted 4-0 in favor of authorizing City Manager Emilio Gonzalez to create an amendment to the city’s zoning code, known as Miami 21. These sneaky new regulations would not only provide definitions of what constitutes a gambling facility and where such venues could be located within Miami, but would also require 4 of the 5 city commissioners to vote in favor of any such facility to be approved. One commissioner, Keon Hardemon, declined to vote and was against the entire motion.
Isadore Havenick, VP of West Flagler Associates, felt his business was being “targeted” by the city. But City Attorney Victoria Mendez said that vote was not specifically targeted at Magic City, though it did mean that the owners should be aware that they may be facing new zoning laws as they seek approvals for their poker room and fronton. Sounds a little fishy, doesn’t’ it? “I’m deeply disappointed and saddened that the city would change the rules of the game” Havenick said.
Commissioner Ken Russell, who proposed the new rule, said that adding new regulations were necessary and they would force gambling facilities to go through a public, vetting process and allow the city to reject locations for casinos, poker rooms and other pari-mutual venues.
In 2019, that law was enacted and Magic City filed suit. On February 13, 2020, the developers won approval from the City of Miami commissioners in a 3-2 vote to proceed with its plans to build a fronton and poker room establishment. This was to be a part of a huge project being developed by Russell Galbut’s Miami-based firm Crescent Heights, which has built multiple buildings around the country.
But this was not the end of the battle. A week after the project was approved again, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez vetoed that lawsuit settlement on February 21, 2020, blocking Flagler Associates to proceed with the jai-alai fronton and poker room project.
But wait there’s more!
West Flagler Associates and the City of Miami were both sued in March 2020 by a group of civic leaders that included billionaire automobile magnate Norman Braman and Related Group CEO Jorge Perez who claimed the permission to proceed with the gambling establishment had not been properly settled by a court.
On January 20, 2021 Judge Hanzmann ruled that Major Suarez had the legal ability to veto the deal claiming that the casino owners “claimed they obtained special right to expand casino gambling through private meetings with City officials”.
Now, nearly a couple of months later, there is word that a settlement with the City of Miami and Magic City Casino that would ban gambling “elsewhere in the city”. Could that mean that they are going to allow the Edgewater Fronton to open but put a freeze on any other expansion in the city?
Vice Chairman Ken Russell said his understanding was that both sides are at the table in good faith and are getting close to a settlement. He added that they were not there yet (to an agreement) and would like a little more time. This issue has been deferred from a February 11 meeting to February 25 and now has been pushed back to March 11th – which is this Thursday.
Currently, several lawsuits are being discussed between the parties. Magic City Casino allege in a April 2019 lawsuit that the change in the zoning laws disrupted their progress with the jai-alai and poker establishment on Biscayne Blvd. They also contend that they had a permit to build from Florida’s Division of Pari-Mutual Wagering before the city commissioners voted in 2018 to require that 4 of the 5 member city commissioners must approve any new gambling location.
An outside attorney working for the city, Raquel “Rocky” Rodriguez has also confirmed the two sides are close to an agreement and said a “global settlement” would be ideal. As of last week, she said didn’t have a draft of the ordinance that auto dealer Braman’s group has suggested in which they would dismiss their litigation if the city commission bans gaming in the rest of the city.
What could be in store here? It’s only speculation, but could it mean that Magic City will have another fronton in operation – just a few miles east – in the booming area of downtown Miami? We shall find out soon!