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A Trendy Miami Neighborhood Is Getting ... Jai Alai?

Jai-alai frontons require large spaces.

Miami's trendy, and largely residential, Edgewater neighborhood could soon be home to a new gambling facility with poker and jai alai. Operators of Miami's Magic City Casino won state approval last week to run "summer jai alai" on a site at 3030 Biscayne Blvd. 

Edgewater lies just north of downtown Miami and borders Biscayne Bay. Recent luxury condo developments there include Elysee, Paraiso Bay and Missoni Baia. When DJ David Guetta bought a home in Edgewater in 2014, he called the neighborhood "cool" and "cultural." Timbaland reportedly owns a unit at the Aria building on the bay. 

Florida's Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering gave West Flagler Associates a permit to operate on sites between Northeast 29th and 32nd streets between Biscayne Boulevard and Northeast Second Avenue, following a long-running lawsuit over the state's convoluted gambling laws. 

In Florida in the 1990s, operators of racetracks or jai alai were allowed to add more lucrative card games or slots, so long as they maintained the racing and jai alai. But while those sports have declined in popularity, no "decoupling" law has passed separating the activities, so the jai alai and racing continue as a prerequisite for the other gambling. 

West Flagler Associates also operates Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Racing & Poker in Bonita Springs. The company stopped greyhound racing at Magic City Casino this June and will offer jai alai instead. 

The “summer jai alai” permit for the new Biscayne Boulevard site will allow jai alai from May through November and poker year-round. During the busy winter season (when snowbirds come and the facility would compete with other operations), games would not be allowed, so the company plans to offer concerts and comedy shows then. There are no plans for slot machines, the Miami Herald reports. Current regulations only allow 2,000 such machines in Miami-Dade County.  

Plans also call for a restaurant and conversion of a 50K SF building into a jai alai fronton. WLRN reported that West Flagler is negotiating with Crescent Heights, the property owner of 3000 Biscayne, to lease its lot and construct a new building. The current building, which houses several nonprofit groups, was previously owned by the nonprofit Legal Services of Greater Miami, but that group sold it for $19.2M in 2014. 

An anti-gambling group called No Casinos told WLRN it was looking at possible legal challenges to the permit, and the facility could draw opposition from neighbors over things like traffic issues. Casino executives have said they would provide more than 300 jobs. 

Gambling facilities can seem like an anachronism, as racetrack and casino facilities around the country shutter and get converted into housing developments, mixed-use projects and possibly Amazon HQ2 sites. In South Florida, some such properties have fallen into disrepair, while others, like Gulfstream Park in Hallandale and the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, have bucked the trend and undergone multimillion-dollar expansions in recent years. 

Though some gambling facilities around the state, as well as individual counties, have fought to expand gambling, the Seminole Tribe, which operates casinos in Hollywood and Tampa, often fends off those efforts; it pays the state about $300M per year to keep slots limited to South Florida and maintain its exclusive right to offer certain card games like blackjack. A decision last year by the state Supreme Court quashed an effort by one of the competing casinos that might have opened up competition. Disney also lobbies against expanded gambling that might encroach on its entertainment empire.  

A proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot this November could determine whether voters, instead of the state legislature, will have authority to approve gambling casinos in the future. Another amendment could ban dog racing by 2020