Port Canaveral – The Canaveral Port Authority decided Wednesday to create a commission to study dockside gambling after hearing its lucrative casino ship tenants have seen precipitous declines in passengers and profits during the past two years.
Passenger counts have declined 41 percent, Gary Inks, vice president of sales and marketing for SunCruz Casinos, said in a presentation to commissioners, and profits have eroded. He blamed a sour economy and competition from Seminole casinos, which like the gambling ships offer slot machines and table games such as blackjack.
Inks, who also represented the port’s other gambling ship operator, Las Vegas Casino Lines, said allowing dockside gaming would strengthen an industry that creates more than 500 full- and part-time jobs at the port. Now, the vessels must travel three miles offshore to international waters during excursions that last up to five hours. Allowing the vessels to host gambling while tied to the dock would lure more business, he said.
„It has been proven there are significant improvements in passenger counts,“ Inks said. „Our margins are being challenged. We’re making money, but we’re right at the edge.“
Inks said his company plans to invest USD 6 million in marketing and upgrades on its SunCruz XII ship.
Commissioner Ralph Kennedy will chair the committee, which will consist of industry representatives and other interests from the port.
Kennedy and port officials are scheduled to meet today with District 29 State Rep. Ralph Poppell, who noted that the Florida Legislature would have to approve changes to state law to allow dockside gambling.
„I’m waiting to hear what they have to say,“ Poppell said in an interview.
None of the commissioners spoke against dockside gaming Wednesday.
„This is an important industry,“ Commissioner Malcolm McLouth said. „We can’t just say we would let it go under. We should look at fees. We should look at berthing. We should look at change to our legislation.“
Last month, the port authority modified a payment agreement with Las Vegas Casino Lines to allow a six-month payment plan based on revenues per passenger, rather than a guaranteed annual minimum.
„I do recognize the jobs they create,“ Kennedy said. „If we continue to want the revenue from gaming, we need to stand up and do this.“
Commissioners mentioned traveling to Biloxi, Miss., to study the evolution of gambling there.
In Biloxi, gambling was legalized in the early 1990s. The industry began with several small vessels. Once the requirement to leave port was lifted by the state, the industry built massive casinos on floating barges.
When Hurricane Katrina destroyed most of the dockside barges in 2005, the casino companies were allowed to install gaming devices in waterside hotels.
Figures show 2008 annual revenue from gambling on the Mississippi Coast was USD 1.27 billion.