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Proponents of Sunrise casino destination make their case in Senate gaming committee

The Florida Panthers hockey team could be the first major sports team linked to a destination casino if legislators permit an expansion of gambling, proponents said Monday after a meeting of the Senate Committee on Gaming.

Sunrise Sports & Entertainment is partnering with Las Vegas-based Boyd Gaming Corporation on its proposal for a hotel, spa and casino with 50,000 square feet for meeting space on the land adjacent to the BB & T Center in the city of Sunrise. Broward County owns the land.

The BB & T Center, which hosts concerts and special events as well as hockey games, is across the road from Sawgrass Mills, considered Florida's second-largest tourist destination with more than 350 outlet stores, and near the Sawgrass Expressway and other roads, factors that make it a prime location for the casino/hotel resort, said Michael Yormark, president and CEO of Sunrise Sports & Entertainment and the Florida Panthers NHL hockey team.

He said the casino/resort would “blend into the community” with “hundreds, not thousands” of hotel rooms. Yormark also told the Senate panel that the casino/resort would not be going after the convention business so wouldn’t compete with Broward County’s convention center near the beach or Central Florida’s convention business.

He told legislators that a casino and resort-type hotel is needed in order to have a “level playing field” with Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino near Hollywood.

“We can’t compete with them,” said Yormark, adding that Seminole "overpays" for talent. A casino and hotel would give Sunrise Sports the chance “for a sustained business model,” he said.

The Florida Panthers and its operating lease to BB&T Center were sold for $230 million to a group led by New York hedge fund manager Vincent Viola this fall. The $230 million pricetag includes  the NHL team; the operating agreement with the Broward County-owned BB&T Center; the three-sheet Iceplex in Coral Springs; and the rights to develop nine acres surrounding the arena, according to The Miami Herald.

Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Coconut Grove, said she was concerned about surrounding hotels and restaurants being impacted by the casino, concerns she has raised in the past when much larger, big-name casino destinations have been discussed, including the Genting Group’s proposed casino in the former site of The Miami Herald on Miami Beach. The Las Vegas’ Sands and casino destination The Las Vegas’ Sands Corp. also wants to build a casino destination resort in Florida.

Boyd operates 22 gambling operations in eight states. The firm also purchased Dania Jai-Alai in 2006 but Boyd never introduced slots there and sold the property, Yormark said.

Margolis said destination casino resorts offer free hotel rooms and meals that smaller local businesses can’t match. Yormark said after the meeting that these types of freebies are minimal, reserved for “high-rollers.”

The Senate Committee on Gaming has been holding meetings around Florida to hear opinions about the future of gambling in the state. Monday’s meeting was the committee’s last public hearing -- the committee will next meet Jan. 13th.

Asked about the odds of passing comprehensive gambling legislation this year, Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, chairman of the Senate Committee on Gaming, said the chances are “50-50.”

“We have to find out what it is we want to do, what it is we believe is in the best interest of the state of Florida before we can go any further,” he said. “That’s what the next step is. We’re preparing to cross the starting line.”

He said there were numerous issues from dog racing to destination casino resorts to the possibility of a gaming commission. “If you take all the pieces of the puzzle, they don’t snap together that easily.”

Richter said he couldn’t comment on Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford’s call for a state constitutional amendment to allow voters to decide future changes to gaming in the state.

“I haven’t seen what it’s going to do so I don’t know enough about it to comment on it,” he said.

The Senate meeting also heard from other speakers, both pro and con, about greyhound racing and “decoupling,” allowing dog tracks to offer gambling at separate sites where there isn’t any greyhound racing and Internet cafes, with the American Legion of Florida calling for modernized bingo laws.