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Nation: High Stakes in Miami Beach

3 minute read

Gambling for a dying resort?

It’s one thing to visit Las Vegas and go on a spree,” says Florida Governor Reubin Askew. “It’s another thing entirely to drag Las Vegas home with you and set it up in your own community.”

That, however, is just what a small but determined group of Floridians would like to do. Advised by Public Relations Whiz Sanford Weiner, 49, the skilled promoter who helped legalize gambling in Atlantic City, N.J., a dozen hotel owners and businessmen in decaying Miami Beach are launching a drive to collect the signatures of 255,653 voters—enough to put legalized gambling casinos on a statewide ballot in November. Says Leon Manne, president of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce: “Gambling will turn the economy around faster than anything. It is the quickest solution.”

Weiner has already set up a makeshift office in the Marco Polo Resort on Collins Avenue, where many of Miami Beach’s hotels are clustered. Under the banner of a LET’S HELP FLORIDA committee, the campaign to collect signatures will begin in two weeks, with a July 31 deadline.

Weiner concedes that even if he rounds up enough signatures, winning the November referendum will not be easy. Legalized slot machines in Florida attracted many gangsters in the 1930s, and illegal casinos flourished in the ’40s. It was only the Kefauver committee revelations of widespread criminality that brought reforms in the 1950s. Even now a poll shows only a slim majority of Floridians in favor of legalizing gambling. Weiner, however, is counting on a healthy advertising budget, as much as $1 million; he spent $1.3 million in New Jersey.

Leading the opposition is Governor Askew, who defeated a gaming petition drive in 1976, but who leaves office next January. Arrayed with him will be lawmen, the clergy, the Miami Herald and many Florida conservatives.

Askew argues that no matter how the gambling law is written, it will attract organized crime, drugs and prostitution “like blood attracts sharks.” Agrees Dade County Sheriff E. Wilson Purdy: “Organized crime is south Florida’s biggest growth industry. They’re all over the place now. Casinos would be a major step toward a complete mob takeover.” Adds former Miami Beach Mayor Jay Dermer. “The hotel people have it all backward. They must first fix up their places.”

Weiner is nonetheless confident: “If a strong effort is made, we can win.” The idea’s biggest selling point may be that gambling would be limited to a strip of about 20 miles along Florida’s Gold Coast —where the hotelmen and others in a once lucrative tourist market see legalized gambling as their last resort. –

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