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Wild Card

Broward County voters may like the idea of having slot machines at area racetracks and jai-alai frontons, but the plan has more skeptics than fans among the business and development community.

Norman Taylor, director of economic development for the county, says the competing economic claims of proponents and opponents leave many unanswered questions.

First, of course, is the question of whether local voters will say yes again when the question is put to them later this year. Voters statewide passed a constitutional amendment in November that lets south Florida residents decide the issue locally. Advocates on both sides say the odds favor approval.

"We have a real uphill battle in Broward," acknowledges state Rep. Randy Johnson, R-Winter Garden, who led the No Casinos movement statewide.

Johnson and other slot machine opponents say local businesses would suffer and increased regulatory and law enforcement costs would overtake any economic gains.

Studies produced for the racetrack interests promise substantial local economic dividends as racetracks build new facilities, hire more employees, pay taxes and send lucky patrons out to spend their winnings.

The real picture will not be easy to forecast, Taylor says. "I think there's a lot to do," he says. "We're going to give it a very thorough look."

Christopher Pollock, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, whose members include several racetracks and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, also has questions.

How the measure would affect local businesses depends in part on whether racetrack slot machines draw more tourists or residents, he says. "Where is that money coming from? Obviously there's going to be some positive economic spillover to the tracks, but the problem is you don't know how it's going to take away from the other venues."

Such fears led the Seminoles to spend $5.6 million in an unsuccessful effort to defeat the constitutional amendment. The tribe is not eager to share its monopoly in onshore casinos.

But even tribe council member Max Osceola has mixed feelings.

A local vote to allow the slot machines might open the door for the Indian casinos to add slot machines, which are currently prohibited.

"It's good and bad," Osceola says. "The good part is we'd have the same kind of machines allowed at those places. The bad thing is there would be seven others" to compete with. "Right now, we're the only ice cream store in town."