By Tom Brown
MIAMI (Reuters) - Malaysia-based Genting Berhad, one of the world's largest international casino operators, is betting big on Miami becoming a palm-fringed playground for global gamblers.
The cash-rich company, which controls casino resorts in Malaysia and Singapore, will make its first official foray into the U.S. gaming market with the opening of a gambling parlor at New York's Aqueduct racetrack this fall.
Coupled with its plans for South Florida -- where it already controls Miami-based Norwegian Cruise lines and has lofty dreams about creating a sort of Macau of the Americas -- Genting is carving out a big foothold on the U.S. East Coast.
Florida, which is struggling to recover from the crippling U.S. recession and record-high unemployment, is desperately in need of a new source of jobs and tax revenues. The problem is that state law currently forbids casinos from expanding beyond businesses operated by the Seminole Indian tribe and selected racetracks and jai alai frontons.
Lawmakers are widely expected to liberalize Florida's gambling laws, sooner rather than later, however. And analysts say Genting has the deep pockets and "patient capital" to start laying the groundwork now for future business.
"I believe Miami is destined to become one of the greatest global cities in the world," Genting Chairman and Chief Executive KT Lim told a gathering of Miami business and civic leaders last week.
"With planes now able to fly nonstop from Singapore and Hong Kong, Miami will soon connect Asia with the Americas," he said.
In one of the priciest real estate deals in Miami's history, Genting Malaysia Berhad announced last month that it was paying $236 million for a 14-acre (5.7 hectare) piece of waterfront property in the downtown area that currently houses the Miami Herald newspaper.
For a total investment of about $3 billion, Genting plans to build a luxury hotel on the site overlooking the azure waters of Biscayne Bay, along with convention, entertainment, restaurant, retail, residential and commercial facilities.
Genting has stressed that the project would create thousands of jobs in the city. But the casino giant has also said the time it takes to complete the project, dubbed Resorts World Miami, a key potential contributor to tourism and local cash flow, will depend on Florida's gambling politics.
Mike Speller, the New York-based president of Genting's Resorts World subsidiary, says the project will go ahead whether or not Florida changes its gaming laws anytime soon.
But the casino element is the driver of Genting's business plan, and legal changes would step up development, which is currently forecast to take up to 20 years.
"It would certainly shorten the period greatly that we would be able to build out the entire project because there would be that much more momentum," Speller told Reuters.
Gaming titans led by the Las Vegas Sands Corp have been lobbying to persuade lawmakers to allow for full casino gambling at so-called "destination resorts" in Florida since the Seminole Tribe won its right to offer blackjack, baccarat and other banked card games more than two years ago.
A legislative proposal to bring five destination resorts to the state died in the legislature in March. But industry lobbyists and lawmakers are already drafting new proposals, focused strictly on South Florida, and hope a large-scale gaming expansion can be pushed through when a new legislative session opens in Tallahassee in the fall.
Florida's conservative Republican governor, Rick Scott, has yet to stake out a clear position on the issue. But he met with Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire businessman and Sands owner, after his election last year.
"I think we've got a good shot to get it done during this 2012 session," said Nick Iarossi, Adelson's point man and lobbyist for the Sands in Tallahassee, when asked about the likelihood of seeing a change in gaming laws soon.
"We've gotten some encouraging signs from key members of the legislature, on both sides of the House, as well as the governor's office," Iarossi said. "We're going to make an all-out effort to get it done this session."
Representative Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican, is among those who plan to sponsor revamped gaming legislation in the fall. He said the economic benefits, including what he sees as more than 10,000 permanent jobs stemming from Genting's project, make expanded gambling a must-have for Florida.
"We're still obviously in kind of a recessive economy right now so it lends itself even more so to making game-changing decisions that will immediately inject billions of dollars of infrastructure investment into the state of Florida." he said.
"There's not a single piece of legislation that will be considered during the upcoming session that will create more jobs than this proposal," added Iarossi. He said Genting, Wynn Resort, MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment were all part of the lobbying effort in Tallahassee, which was spearheaded by Adelson.
Like Genting, which operates the only casino resort that rivals the one owned by the Sands in Singapore, Iarossi said Adleson would happily pay $3 billion to develop a high-end destination resort in Miami.