State Politics

Stakes huge for Sarasota Kennel Club

The sprawling interior of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa is filled with patrons of every race, age, nationality, income and persuasion. But there’s one thing they all seem to agree upon: They go there for fun.

What happens at the big casino complex 40 miles north of Manatee County is germane to local residents, as state lawmakers ponder whether to allow expanded gambling there and at six other casinos owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Changes in the law might damage or close competing pari-mutuel businesses that depend upon wagering. One such business is the venerable Sarasota Kennel Club, a fixture in the area since 1929. It offers card games and dog racing.

If lawmakers OK a new gambling agreement with the Seminoles that puts the much-smaller kennel club at a competitive disadvantage, it might close and leave as many as 300 workers unemployed, its owner said.

The Seminoles argue that competition in the area is more general, and that the kennel club must compete against its casino as well as all other businesses that provide entertainment.

Jack Collins Jr. is the vice president and general manager of the Sarasota Kennel Club at 5400 Bradenton Road near Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. Collins’ family has operated the greyhound racing tracks there since 1944.

When state lawmakers eased restrictions on how much people could bet in card games, Collins added the One-Eyed Jacks Poker Room. Asked how the new card room, which opened in 2006, was faring, Collins said, “Really tremendous.”

It is much smaller than the Tampa casino, and its crowd is more heavily local. It does not permit smoking. It’s clean, quiet and friendly — attributes that attract dozens of tables full of mostly male players. They enjoy games like Texas hold ’em, seven-card stud and Omaha.

State Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, wants to protect businesses like the Sarasota track when the House Select Committee on Seminole Indian Compact Review considers a gambling arrangement with the Seminoles.

Galvano, who is the committee’s chairman, worries that the 2007 agreement — which has since been struck down by the courts but which the Tribe would like legislators to approve as is — would kill pari-mutuel businesses.

“The current compact is definitely an uncompetitive edge,” Collins agreed. “Gov. (Charlie) Crist made a compact without consulting anybody in our industry, with thousands of people employed — close to 10,000, I’m sure. And I guess the (U.S.) Supreme Court said he didn’t have the authority to make that ruling.

“Nobody is really sure what’s going to come out of it.”

The Sarasota club employs 300 during the high season and pays $750,000 to the state every year in pari-mutuel taxes, he said.

If the state’s agreement with the Seminoles allows too great of a competitive edge, Collins fears his business would die.

Conversely, if he were allowed to offer slot machines in addition to card games, he would expect attendance at the kennel club to jump from its current 275,000- 300,000 annually to 1.5 million or more, along with much higher tax revenues to the state.

What about the ethical concerns of allowing expanded gambling into Florida, so proud of its wholesome image?

“My point is gambling is going on throughout the state,” replied Collins. “The industry has Hard Rock (Hotel & Casino), casino boats, dogs, horses, and now, poker, the Lottery, which has been legal since ’88. It’s already going on... it’s a form of entertainment.”

The Seminoles argue that the pari-mutuels must compete against the casinos as well as many other types of businesses for their customers.

“While some people might look at the Kennel Club in Sarasota and the casino in Tampa, they’re a lot of miles apart,” said Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the tribe. “The truth is, both compete with other places, movies, restaurants and shopping that are much closer. This is about what choices people make; they’re going out for entertainment.”

“Competition is really broader than venues that offer gaming; it’s more about all the choices people have to spend their entertainment time and dollars,” he added.

In a report released Friday, a non-profit research organization studying the issue contended any revenue generated by a compact with the Seminoles would be “significantly” offset by direct losses in other state revenues.

The economic consequences of casino gambling likely would be mixed, since other tax sources would drop as consumers shifted spending to new gaming, Florida TaxWatch’s report said.

“Different forms of gambling can ‘cannibalize’ each other, leading to reductions in tax revenues from existing gaming, due to the entrance of new gaming,” it said. “Additionally, the diversion of consumer spending from taxable purchases to casino gaming reduces sales tax revenues.”

But Bitner suggested the best place to look for the truth is a recent House report showing an almost half-billion dollar impact annually from both the Seminole casinos and the state’s pari-mutuel businesses.

He declined further comment until he could study the TaxWatch report more closely.

Mike Gray, 36, a limousine driver from Sarasota, likes to play cards at the kennel club.

“It’s fun and exciting,” he said, taking a break from playing a tournament round. He had already won two tournaments in recent weeks.

“I’m for expansion of gambling,” he added. “In this environment, it’s safe, non-smoking, clean. Most are regulars, so we know each other; it’s social, too.”

There’s another plus, he noted: “If you win, you make money, and that’s nice.”