Among possible losers if the slots referendum passes are gaming-boat operators. At least one already is fighting to survive.
Moe Noonan, 83-year-old Hollywood resident and hard-core gambler, boards a gaming ship five days a week for the pleasure of sitting at a blackjack table for a few hours.
Noonan, though, hates taking an hourlong boat trip to international waters before he’s able to gamble.
”It’s a pain,” he barked the other day before sailing on the St. Tropez in Port Everglades. “At least at a casino, after two hours I can go. I can’t drive home from the boat. I’ve got to stay there.”
Gambling boats could be big losers if residents in Miami-Dade and Broward vote March 8 in favor of permitting slot machines at seven racetracks and jai-alai frontons.
Noonan says he’s voting for it. The gambling cruise is a five-hour or more commitment. At a racetrack or fronton, he could come and go as he pleases.
He figures if if slots are approved it’s only a matter of time before blackjack tables show up alongside the slots.
South Florida’s ”cruise to nowhere” businesses are already sailing in choppy financial seas. In the past year, the boats were battered by an unprecedented hurricane season, paid higher fuel costs and were dealt a formidable rival in the $410 million Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood.
Three South Florida Togel gaming ships reported a drop-off in customers, including one that lost more than a third of its business.
St. Tropez Casino Cruises this month became the latest in a procession of casino-boat operators that have sought shelter from creditors by filing for bankruptcy protection. Some see the threat from slots as enough to sink the entire industry in South Florida.
The bankruptcies indicate that the cruise boats are often a marginal business, said Bob Sturges, president of Coral Gables-based Sturges Hospitality Consulting. He is a consultant to Flagler Dog Track — one of the beneficiaries if voters approve slots — and advised Dania Beach-based SunCruz Casinos’ unsecured creditors after it slipped into bankruptcy in 2001.
The gaming-boat business, he said, “is going to be severely damaged to the point that they will have to relocate.”
Not everyone is predicting a burial at sea if slots are approved. That’s because the parimutuels won’t offer blackjack, craps, baccarat and other table games.
”We’re not worried,” said Jacques Teze, director of Vanquish Acquisition Partners, a New York investment firm that recently took over operation of Casino Princesa from Miami’s Bayfront Park. “The Casino Princesa has full gaming tables. I don’t think it will have a big impact.”
Casino Princesa’s traffic fell 11 percent to 161,972 in its latest fiscal year, according to figures provided by Tim Schmand, executive director of the Bayfront Park Management Trust, which leases facilities to the ship.
”I’m a little concerned that the slots in parimutuels may have a negative effect on their business,” Schmand said of Casino Princesa. “They have been a great attraction to bring people down to the park.”
$600,000 IN FEES
The trust collects a little more than $600,000 a year in fees from Casino Princesa.
Representatives from the other gaming-boat firms — St. Tropez and SeaEscape Entertainment in Port Everglades, SunCruz in Hollywood and the Palm Beach Princess — didn’t respond to requests for comment.
There doesn’t appear to be any noticeable organized opposition from South Florida’s gaming-boat businesses to the slots referendum. Nor has the Florida Day Cruise Association, which represents cruise-to-nowhere operators around the state, rallied the troops.
A half-dozen gaming-boat operators from around the state contributed almost $912,000 — including $150,000 from one of SunCruz’s owners — to an anti-slots group to fight a November ballot measure on whether to allow the slots referendum in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. It narrowly passed.
Slots player Audrey Carey of Margate said being able to play at parimutuels would affect the number of trips she takes on the gaming boats.
”Instead of coming here five times a year, I’d come maybe twice,” Carey said.
Parimutuels would have Class III machines, Las Vegas-style slots, in which a person plays against the house. Some slot players may head to the Seminole Hard Rock establishment that opened in May offering Class II machines, where gamblers play against other players, similar to bingo.
Since the Seminole Hard Rock’s debut, the St. Tropez has experienced a sharp drop in passengers. Other factors, including the hurricanes and ship repairs, likely contributed to the decline.
SeaEscape’s numbers dropped less than 5 percent during the same period.
Combined, SeaEscape and St. Tropez fell about $512,000 short of what they owed the port in their latest fiscal years.
If slots are approved, gaming-boat operators could consider reshuffling the mix of table games and slots. But that could have consequences.
PROFITS FROM SLOTS
The average U.S. casino generates 70 percent of its winnings from slot machines, with the balance coming from table games, said Steve Bourie, the Hollywood author of the American Casino Guide. Replacing slot machines with more table games would jack up gaming-boat operators’ labor costs.
Another option: finding a new home.
”The good thing about the day-cruise industry is the vessel is movable and this only affects those two markets,” Hlavsa said. “The operators can survive by relocating their product to a new market if they believe they are not as profitable as they would like to be.”